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Did Social Media Help Ease Tensions After Zimmerman Verdict?

Calm largely prevailed after a jury acquitted George Zimmerman Saturday night in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Law enforcement and community leaders had prepared for potential unrest, and a general riot panic had been set in place for months. Slate's Dave Weigel sums up the fears:

" 'The public mind has been so poisoned,' wrote Pat Buchanan last year, 'that an acquittal of George Zimmerman could ignite a reaction similar to that, 20 years ago, when the Simi Valley jury acquitted the LAPD cops in the Rodney King beating case.' In fringe media, like the Alex Jones network of sites, it was taken for granted that a Zimmerman acquittal would inspire a race war. The only dispute was about the scale."

But when people took to the streets Sunday to express anger and heartbreak over the verdict, they didn't riot.

There are many explanations for the gap between expectation and reality. The assumption that protests would turn to riots was wrong and "obscene" in the first place, as many writers have noted. The case actually going to trial, which was in question last year, also helped release some pressure.

"More than one person [in Sanford last year] fretted about riots if Zimmerman wasn't put on trial," Weigel says. "Once he was put on trial, the tenor of the outrage changed for good. Sanford itself was peaceful [Saturday] night."

And then there are social media, which have been playing an outsize role in the public debate about Martin and Zimmerman all along. 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.

On Twitter, there was no shortage of angry sentiments, and even the mentions of potential violence to come: New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz tweeted shortly after the verdict that Zimmerman "won't last a year before the hood catches up with him." (He has since apologized.) They were visceral responses, to be sure, but in a mediated space.

"Rioting comes from people who don't have any other mechanism for response, so other mechanisms for response may reduce the use of [rioting]," says Clay Shirky, author, New York University professor and Internet thinker.

If they did help in acting as a mediator, social media wouldn't be alone in working as a proxy platform for potentially violent battles. Up until modern times, European football, or, soccer, became a way for countries to show their national pride, expressing festering resentments by battling each other on the field rather than going to costly war.

"The World Cup used to be a festival of geopolitics," writes Simon Kuper, author of Soccer Against the Enemy."The tournament began in 1930, just as fascism was getting going. Then, after a decent interruption for World War II, the World Cup resumed in an era of hysterical nationalism. Postwar European countries still nursed resentments — chiefly, against Germany — that came out on the turf."

In other situations of unrest, social media can do the exact opposite and fuel disorder. Sociologists who studied the 2011 London riots believe social media were "instrumental to the [riots'] organization and proliferation." The Economist wrote in 2011:

"The communications tool of choice for rioters has been the BlackBerry. It has 37% of the teenage mobile market. Young people like its BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) feature, which allows users to send free messages to individuals, or to all their contacts at once. It was used to summon mobs to particular venues. ... The rioters use BBM against the police."

Communications technology is just one variable to consider in why communities riot — or not. There's no way to isolate the role of today's social media "turf" as its own variable in preventing aggression in real life.

"This is the problem with sociology generally, which is you don't get to run the other version of reality to see what happened," Shirky says. "So isolating variables like mediated public voice are hard to separate from, say, having an African-American president, or having a vigorous prosecution, unlike, for example, Simi Valley."

NPR's JoElla Straley contributed to this report.

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