Did social media kill the Zimmerman trial book deal?
In a conclusion that has sparked outrage across physical and online platforms, neighbourhood watch guard George Zimmerman has been acquitted of killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The race-focused case had been open since February, but was prevalent on Twitter and Facebook long before the incident crossed any news desks, due mainly to the strong voice of what Buzzfeed writer Shani O. Hilton dubs ‘Black Twitter’.
Black Twitter is, Hilton says, “A group of thousands of black Twitterers (though, to be accurate, not everyone within Black Twitter is black, and not every black person on Twitter is in Black Twitter) who a) are interested in issues of race in the news and pop culture and b) tweet A LOT.”
In the aftermath of the case it emerged that one anonymous juror, known as Juror B37, had, with the help of literary agent Sharlene Martin, planned to write a tell-all book after telling CNN that the unarmed Trayvon Martin was partly to blame for the incident, while his killer’s “heart was in the right place”.
Black Twitter swiftly went on the offensive, with user Genie Lauren (aka @moreandagain) creating a Change.org petition that garnered 1,300 signatures and spearheading a Twitter campaign that saw Martin barraged with tweets imploring her to reconsider her position. Some hours later, the agent reportedly messaged Lauren saying that she had in fact changed her mind. Juror B37 later released a statement saying she was unaware while sequestered of the widespread anger surrounding the racially-charged case, and that she now “realized that the best direction for me to go is away”.
The power of Black Twitter is obvious, then. As Hilton concludes: “As Twitter has grown and become more central to daily conversation, the influence of its pigeonholed groups has also grown exponentially. Today, Black Twitter is no longer something you can only find if you know where to look. It’s permeating your timeline, even if you don’t know it.”
Elsewhere, many claim that the cathartic nature of social media helped to avoid potentially violent clashes following the verdict. According to Slate’s Dave Weigal: “It was taken for granted that a Zimmerman acquittal would inspire a race war. The only dispute was about the scale.”
However, when people took to the streets to protest the outcome, there was no rioting, something NPR writer Elise Hu attributes to social media’s role as mediator. “In the aftermath of the verdict, Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr gave everyone who felt something about the verdict a place to vent, or bicker, or celebrate,” she said.
New York University professor Clay Shirky agrees, adding: “Rioting comes from people who don’t have any other mechanism for response, so other mechanisms for response may reduce the use of [rioting].”