We've seen predominantly African-American communities caught up in such turmoil before. We've seen the people's buildings, stores, places of employment and reputation wrecked for decades — Watts in 1965 and Newark in 1967. In both cases, demonstrations set off by long-simmering grievances attracted violence and those who feasted on it.
What's different this time is the role of social media in changing both how the story is told and the story itself. Twitter has made a bad situation worse — letting loose an indifferent mix of truth, lies, manipulation, good intentions and evil ones.
There are those who disagree. Media critic David Carr hailed the explosion of Twitter traffic early in the conflagration as a golden age of citizen journalism. Whereas CNN was focusing on the death of Lauren Bacall and U.S. action in northern Iraq, he wrote, Twitter feeds were showing where the real news was.
"In a situation hostile to traditional reporting," Carr added, "the crowdsourced, phone-enabled network of information that Twitter provides has proved invaluable."
Two problems with crowdsourcing. One is the "source." Tweeters don't have to identify themselves. Thus, the "information" might well be the fantasy of an online adolescent in Copenhagen. Inflammatory tweets might come from real Ferguson residents expressing their rage or from white racists attempting to discredit the former's cause.
The other problem is the "crowd" — as in whether there really is a crowd. Twitter lets users set up multiple accounts. Nowadays, vendors sell fake Twitter accounts by the truckload to businesses and celebrities, enabling them to claim a massive "following."
Tech writer Nick Bilton said he recently bought 4,000 new followers on Twitter for $5. Another $5 got him 4,000 friends on Facebook.
"Retweets. Likes. Favorites. Comments. Upvotes. Page views. You name it; they're for sale," Bilton wrote. Many of these friends and followers are nothing more than lines of code.
Skilled corporate marketers use social media to invent fads out of nothing. In a famously successful campaign, Verizon made a stir with questions unrelated to its product, questions such as "Will you help me find my mom?"
Political consultants, activists, journalists and pranksters all have access to the same bag of social media tricks. They know how to make a topic pop on Twitter.
Consider this rather revealing quote in The Washington Post by Mary Pat Hector, an organizer for Al Sharpton's national action network:
"People have been tweeting, 'We are ready to die tonight.' It is a trending topic."
If I were a reporter in Ferguson, I'd be following the "Ferguson" hashtag on Twitter — to get some ideas on where to look. Carr is right that in a chaotic situation covering several square miles, one guy with a notebook misses a lot. But that haystack of words is no substitute for anything resembling a reliable account of what's going on.
The illusion of there being a crowd can itself summon crowd. Vying for attention amid the calls for peaceful marches in Ferguson were gleeful invitations to torch the town. Citizen journalism is not always good for the citizens.
In pre-Twitter days, old-fashioned TV cameras were known to draw throngs of performers. Now Twitter draws the mobs that draw the TV cameras, which generate even larger numbers.
One feels for the benighted people of Ferguson, whose city has become a stage for all kinds of online performances. Let's hope that when the show moves on, they will have something to rebuild.