How social media freed reporters Wesley Lowery and Ryan Reilly from Ferguson police

August 14

This image taken from video by Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post shows a police officer confronting Lowery in a fast-food restaurant in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 13. (AP Photo/The Washington Post/Wesley Lowery)

When police in combat gear arrested two reporters last night in Ferguson, Mo., the journalists' first instinct was to tweet about it.

“Ryan, tweet that they’re arresting me, tweet that they’re arresting me," The Washington Post's Wesley Lowery told Ryan Reilly, a reporter for the Huffington Post. But it was too late: Reilly himself was being put in handcuffs.

The two reporters were in a local McDonald's when police arrived to clear the place out. Apparently frustrated that the journalists weren't moving quickly enough, the officers slammed Lowery into a soda fountain machine, cuffed him and put him in the back of a van.

In an earlier time, Lowery might have phoned his editors to let them know he'd been detained. But this is not then.

Back in The Washington Post newsroom, staffers monitoring social media were the first to become concerned about Lowery's whereabouts. Tweets may be little, ephemeral bits of information, but when they wind up launching a major national news story, 140 characters may as well be 140 pages. Within minutes of the reporters' arrest, other journalists were tweeting about the men's disappearance from social media. Those tweets were quickly picked up at The Post, and one editor tweeted to Lowery to call him. Lowery's uncharacteristic radio silence told those back in the newsroom everything they needed to know. Soon, Post staff members alerted executive editor Martin Baron.

Social media is often wrongly credited for spurring, causing or creating events. And in large, movement-scale cases, the criticism may sometimes be valid. But Lowery's arrest is an example of an acute crisis, one that Twitter shaped and even helped resolve. Journalists routinely use Twitter as a documentary tool. But in Lowery and Reilly's case, it quickly became much more than that -- as the dividing line between observer and participant disappeared.

Had Lowery been able to follow through on his impulse to tweet first and call later, he might have been released by police even more quickly. As it was, it hardly took any time for the news to reach The Post, and for the journalists to be released. Equally noteworthy was how the newsroom first found out — not through a phone call, or a fax, or even an e-mail, but by watching the Twitter feeds of other journalists and noting Lowery's and Reilly's absence from those feeds. It's safe to say that how this unfolded would've looked completely different 10 years ago.


(Topsy)

The incident highlights broader changes in the way that digital technology is changing how arrests take place. It would not be hard to hack together a program that delegated this task: "If my smartphone winds up in a police station, automatically send this pre-written tweet." Other tools have cropped up to handle similar situations. In 2011, Google developed a feature called Speak2Tweet, which allowed Egyptians without access to the Internet to call an international number and leave a voicemail that would be converted into a tweet.

People have never been more technologically empowered to document their police interactions — which, by the way, is completely legal.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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