Would you ever have heard of Trayvon Martin had it not been for Twitter? Many of us first learned about and have continued to follow the Martin shooting on Twitter. Without the uproar that grew from social media, George Zimmerman would probably never have been charged. The power of social media is undeniable but not all the shared information has been valid.
When the state of Florida decided not to charge Zimmerman with 2nd degree murder after he shot and killed Trayvon Martin in early 2012, social media exploded. A petition by Trayvon’s parents on Change.org started it all. Over 1.5 Million signatures racked up in just a month, all calling for Zimmerman’s indictment.
The petition was just the beginning: in less than a month Trayvon Martin was mentioned over 600,000 times on Twitter. Outrage swept across social feeds, some of it fanned by false reports. The State of Florida quickly responded by bringing charges against Zimmerman.
Social media continues to be a powerful force in this case. Most recently, key witness Rachel Jeantel caused a massive Twitter reaction, so did an insensitive Instagram photo posted by the daughter of one of the defense lawyers. Actor Jamie Fox also initiated significant buzz when he wore a T-shirt depicting Trayvon’s face during the BET awards on June 30th.
Even though online conversation about the trial has been ongoing, a significant amount of information has been either blatantly incorrect or misleading. Shortly after Trayvon was killed, Zimmerman was incorrectly reported as white, a doctored NBC audiotape made him sound racist, and a pixilated photograph gave the appearance that he had not been injured during the altercation. Each of these errors fueled anger towards Zimmerman.
Only after some fact checking by media and social media users did it become apparent that significant pieces of information had been misreported. However, this is not an automatic process, it is not guaranteed, and there is no telling how long it will take for an error to be noticed and corrected.
The power of the conversation remains breathtaking: without sites like Change.org and Twitter, George Zimmerman may not have been charged. But Zimmerman’s indictment has also put social media on trial, without automated filtering and verification, false information will continue to permeate sites like Twitter and cause very real reactions. There is no doubt that valuable information can be shared across social media, but the Jury’s still out on how much you can trust that information without the proper tools.