Police and protesters are confronting each other not just on the streets of Baltimore but also on social media, where they are battling on Twitter for control of the narrative and highlighting the importance of these technologies as vital tools for reporting and responding to news.
As riots rocked some neighborhoods, the Baltimore Police Department, which has 113,000 Twitter followers, sent out media advisories, updates on injured police officers and areas they considered dangerous because of fires, looting and other criminal activity.
In some instances, the police referred to groups of “violent criminals” who were throwing rocks and other items at police or who were looting and destroying property. The department also made direct appeals to parents and the media for their help in getting children to stay indoors and to protesters to remain peaceful using the hashtag #PeacefulProtest.
But one tweet got particular attention from activists. Patrisse Cullors, one of the co-founders of #BlackLivesMatter and the director of the Truth and Reinvestment Campaign at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, said she was most concerned about a letter the Baltimore Police Department tweeted that indicated a “credible threat” of violence from rival gangs including the Bloods and Crips.
“I think there is the conversation that happens on social media from law enforcement in many places that some people would say are just lies,” Cullors said. “They are putting out information on the one hand and on the other hand propaganda.”
Baltimore police didn’t respond to requests for comment on their social media strategy.
Reaction on social media was critical of the police department’s message with many Twitter users posting a photo of members of both gangs posing together in a show of solidarity with the protesters.
Michaela Angela Davis, a CNN commentator, writer and editorial manager at BET Networks tweeted that the claim that gangs were united was an unproven narrative created by the police.
In an interview with WBAL, a local television station, gang members pushed back against claims that they had organized to incite violence.
“We did not make that truce to harm cops,” said one member of the Bloods.
“We want justice for Freddie Gray,” he said, referring to 25-year-old whose death while in police custody has sparked protests in Baltimore.
Police officials also said the riots had, in part, been incited after a group of high school students called for a “purge,” a reference to the film “The Purge,” where crime is legal for one night a year in America. Some Baltimore residents called last night’s protests a real life version of the film.
For their part, activists tried to refocus the message away from the violence and looting and toward more progressive goals.
On Tuesday morning #BaltimoreUprising had more than 9,600 Twitter mentions in 24 hours.
A website by the same name – BaltimoreUprising.org – had also been created and included information on where people could begin to clean up communities, gather for additional protests, feed children who may have missed free school lunches and find churches where they could seek refuge.
Arisha Hatch, the managing director of campaigns for Color of Change said that activists
have been using social media to try to intentionally reframe the issues to focus on “uprising rather than looting”
“Social media for many individuals has been a powerful platform for us to get our messages
out when traditional media chooses not to cover us,” Hatch said. “This has not been a problem that major police departments face.”
During a press conference on Tuesday, President Barack Obama condemned the violent actions of protesters who looted stores and attacked police. But he also credited technology with surfacing the issues that have plagued communities of color and police.
“Perhaps there’s some newfound awareness because of social media, video cameras and so forth that there are real problems and challenges” in how police work in some communities, the president said.