When Tyler Atkins heard about the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, 18, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, he posted on Twitter a picture of himself in a tuxedo, with a saxophone around his neck, next to a photograph of himself dressed in a black T-shirt with a blue bandanna tied around his head and his finger pointed at the camera.
Like hundreds of young African-Americans, he placed his pictures under the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, protesting Brown’s killing by a police officer and the way young black men are depicted in the news media. He said Brown’s identity was distorted and filtered through negative stereotypes, and that the same would have been done to him with the bandanna image if he found himself the victim of a similar event.
The first picture was taken after a jazz concert at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, where Atkins, a senior, studies music. The other was taken during a recording for a rap video he made with friends for a school math project.
“Had the media gained ahold of this picture, I feel it would be used to portray that I was in a gang, which is not true at all,’’ Atkins, 17, wrote in an email.
The speed with which the shooting of Brown has resonated on social media has helped propel and transform a local shooting into a national cause, as African-American commenters draw attention to continued episodes of violence directed at blacks and the media portrayals of young black men. “This affects me deeply because the stories of Mike Brown, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo and many more could have been me,’’ Atkins wrote, referring to the shooting deaths of blacks, some at the hands of police officers.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama issued a statement calling the shooting “heartbreaking’’ and urging Americans to remember Brown “through reflection and understanding.’’
Obama said, “I know the events of the past few days have prompted strong passions,’’ adding, “We should comfort each other and talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.’’
Brittney Gault, 28, a student at DePaul University, said the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown campaign gained popularity because of the strength of black Twitter users collectively known as “Black Twitter.’’
“They are really a media response team,’’ Gault said. “Everybody is tapped into Black Twitter.’’
And the social media chatter and anguish have become part of a complicated sea of viral words and images — a picture Tuesday of police officers in combat gear pointing military style rifles at a young black man in jeans and a blue T-shirt was one of them — that have created a new and charged environment for social activism.
According to data from the Pew Research Internet Project, 40 percent of African-Americans ages 18-29 use Twitter, compared with 28 percent of whites of the same age.
Since the IfTheyGunnedMeDown campaign began, the phrase has been used on Twitter more than 168,000 times. Commenters on Twitter are also hoping to organize a series of vigils called the National Moment of Silence, which is meant to commemorate victims like Brown. The St. Louis County NAACP urged people on Twitter to use the hashtags #MikeBrown and #blacklifematters “so that your posts can be seen nationally.’’
Local authorities in Ferguson are less enthusiastic about social media’s role, blaming it for inciting looting and violence following the events.
“They have the ability to understand where they’re all going to be, and they can basically plan where they want to go next,’’ said Jon Belmar, the St. Louis County police chief. “So it’s a really efficient way to communicate.’’
Local officials have also declined to release the name of the officer who shot Brown, citing concerns about the officer’s safety because of threats on social media.
The image of Brown that spurred the campaign on Twitter showed him with the fingers of his right hand extended in what some considered a peace sign, but which others called a gang sign. A spokeswoman for NBC News, one of the outlets that published the photograph online, said it was taken from Brown’s personal Facebook page, where it was his profile picture.
In a subsequent article about Brown’s killing, the network used a different photograph of him that showed him wearing headphones and gazing at the camera.
Tosan Tutse-Tonwe, 32, a blogger, consultant and co-founder of a nonprofit group called Act 4 Accountability, said photographs remove context from a situation, particularly in the wake of negative stereotypes about black men.
Tutse-Tonwe posted a photograph of himself wearing a T-shirt from his group and another with a black male friend who is flashing peace signs. Tutse-Tonwe said he chose to post the photograph with his friend after the image of Brown making the same hand gesture was circulated.
“Mike was throwing up a peace sign and people thought it was a gang sign? You’ve got to be kidding me,’’ Tutse-Tonwe said. “People make these leaps and there’s no basis in them and they go unchecked.’’
Jeremy Connally, 24, a student studying computer science at University of Texas at Arlington, agreed. “They’re portrayed as if they deserved it, cop versus robbers, good guys versus bad guys,’’ he said.
The Twitter engagement is part of broader efforts to use social media as a tool for education and engagement, particularly among the young. Few things have been more of a spur to passionate campaigns on Twitter and other social media than some of the racially charged killings of young blacks in recent years, including the killing of Martin, 17, Jordan Davis, 17, and McBride, 19.
Last week, when The Associated Press published a Twitter message announcing that Theodore P. Wafer was found guilty of second-degree murder for killing McBride, Twitter users reacted swiftly, criticizing the post that described Wafer as a “suburban Detroit homeowner’’ and McBride as a “woman who showed up drunk on porch.’’
In response, Twitter users posted African-American history images, including one featuring a slave ship with the headline “Families board wrong ship, end up in wrong place.’’
Yemisi Miller-Tonnet, 19, a student at Spelman College in Atlanta, said social media movements should be taken seriously.
“Hashtag activism is activism,’’ Miller-Tonnet said. “We might be tweeting from a couch, but we’re also getting up and doing the work that needs to be done.’’