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While I was waiting for the “sneak peak” of the next episode of my favorite TV show, the advertisement for the upcoming local evening news came on.

“Join us to see how social media is causing the uprising in Ferguson!”

We’ve talked a lot about technological determinism in our class this semester and especially after reading Michael Schudson’s piece today, the news anchor’s words made me roll my eyes.

Technological determinism is the idea that technology is the force behind the growth of cultural values and social structure. There is an abundance of scholarship that theorizes the world in this way. Several of the scholars we’ve read, including Daniel Kreiss and Andrew Perrin, propose an alternative view that theorizes that people are the motivators behind changes in social structure and cultural change, rather than technology.

Schudson also argues for an alternative to technological determinism. One of his statements that really stuck with me was his description of the printing press (Schudson, 102).

“There is reason to be suspicious of the notion of technological revolutions. . . . And printing, as Elizabeth Einstein has shown very well, assisted but did not in itself produce a scientific revolution. . . . The printing press was largely indifferent to whether it produced works of wisdom or folly.”

Schudson’s alternative to technological determinism puts the drive behind revolutions rightly on the shoulders of the entrepreneurs and innovators who began them. This view is a less passive way to look at the world and would hold people accountable for their actions, as in the case of blaming social media for Ferguson riots.

As it turns out, the home news station wasn’t the only place reporting how Twitter, Vine, and social media in general had “helped,” “harmed,” or “shaped,” the Ferguson protests. Even Prosecutor McCullough spent several minutes before announcing the long-awaited grand jury decision talking about how the biggest challenge in the case was the media’s “insatiable appetite” and “non-stop rumors” he was forced to address or deal with (Horowitz, Huffington Post). Prosecutor McCullough’s view of traditional and social media puts blame on media tools and technologies rather than address any human failings.

Schudson would disagree with the blame that McCullough puts on media. The people of Ferguson (and nationwide) as well as journalists put pressure on police, investigators, witnesses, etc. for information in a high profile case where very little evidence was made public, due to the nature of the grand jury. Where McCullough saw an onslaught of round-the-clock reporting via traditional and social media, Schudson would have seen the new news organizations with slimmer staff, better community connections (even citizen correspondents) and loyal readers.

Schudson saw the changes in culture – the decline of traditional media readership, the onset of newspaper debt, the rise of alternative classified options, the recession of ‘08-’09 – and the corresponding changes in media as necessary for journalism to continue to improve and serve its purpose. “That online technology makes it possible to start and maintain a small news organization without the heavy investment in paper, ink, printing press, and delivery trucks is very encouraging,” Schudson said. “New news organizations staffed by professional journalists and quickly making a name for themselves with substantial, hard-hitting news stories have already emerged,” (Schudson, 106) This change in news organizations is not solely linked to technological changes, it is also the result of cultural changes mentioned before. Technological determinism doesn’t account for this interpretation.

Additional examples of technological determinism surrounding social media coverage of Ferguson are aplenty. Even CNN had a few articles detailing how social media accounts sparked more impassioned and inflammatory response. The article never outright blames Instagram, Twitter, or Vine, for the riots, but definitely mentions how they are “tools” used to perpetuate rumors (Stelter, CNN). While it is true that newspapers and other traditional media are less likely to get a story’s details wrong, that is not to the fault of social media.

The characteristics of social media – fast, up-to-the-minute details – make users of these news media outlets susceptible to getting certain details wrong sometimes, even often. However, where technological determinism comes into play is when we blame social media for propagating misleading or wrong information. As Schudson would say, Twitter couldn’t care less if a riot picture is based off of a decade old protest in another state. It is the people using these mediums who are supposed to be accountable. The same innovators and citizen journalists at all levels are not fact-checking information, which is what drives rumors rather than social media itself. Fact-checking is something that has to occur with traditional media as well.

Another unique use of social media during the unfolding of events in Ferguson was the use of Vine. The short clips of video could be easily posted online – bypassing TV and traditional news outlets in favor of quicker and potentially wider distribution. The International Business Times reported on one Vine user’s popular videos detailing the daily events in the city.

The reporter for the International Business Times article, Jeff Stone, quoted Pulitzer prize winning journalist, Trymaine Lee. “This case, in my experience, has been unlike any other because everything is going viral . . . It’s all playing out before our eyes on Twitter and social media. Everyone seems to be participating and watching.” Lee’s perception of the viral nature of news represents how a cultural value for fast, responsive, personal news has led many news outlets to utilize new technologies in order to appeal to changing social structure. Rather than technology emerging and pushing a cultural change, the cultural change happens and social structure changes with technological innovations.

Schudson provided interesting insight for me into the idea of technological determinism. His piece didn’t focus entirely on this idea, but I appreciate how relevant his historical analysis of journalism is. He used historical analysis of the decline of the traditional media era and the rise of online news and databases to show how journalism continues to change in order to serve “the needs of modern democracy,” (Schudson, 100).

Technological determinism is a limited way of looking at the roles that people play in social and cultural change, and puts accountability on technological tools, rather than innovators and entrepreneurs. His closing argument reiterates the idea that technology doesn’t determine social and cultural change, rather social and cultural change occur and technologies can be used to keep up with the changes.

“In the midst of the present news crisis, devastating as it is, are the birth pangs of the kind of public information that Walter Lippmann sought for journalism – and for democracy – nearly a century ago.”

Citations:
1. Byers, Alex. “#Ferguson: Social Media More Spark than Solution.” POLITICO. N.p., 20 Aug. 2014. Web.

2. Horowitz, Alana. “Ferguson Prosecutor Robert McCulloch Gives Bizarre Press Conference.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 24 Nov. 2014. Web.

3. Schudson, Michael. “Political Observatories, Databases & News in the Emerging Ecology of Public Information.” N.p.: n.p., n.d. 100-09. Print.

4. Stelter, Brian. “Missouri Shooting Furor Shows How Social Media Users Help and Harm.” CNN. Cable News Network, 13 Aug. 2014. Web.

5. Stone, Jeff. “Mike Brown Video: Ferguson Vines Show How Social Media Shapes Missouri Protests.” International Business Times. N.p., 18 Aug. 2014. Web.

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