How the power of social media fueled the Durham NC counter protest to false report of KKK march in front of old Durham County Courthouse

Friday’s demonstration against a rumored Ku Klux Klan march in downtown Durham had its origins in a series of social media posts.

Two Twitter hashtags, #KKKAlert and #DefendDurham, indicated that the Ku Klux Klan planned to march in Durham at noon in response to the toppling of a Confederate monument Monday. (Throughout the day, other posts stated that a 4 p.m. Klan march was planned.) Counterprotesters used Facebook to organize, with specific instructions to march to the old Durham County Courthouse, where the statue formerly stood, and urging other social media users to share the post.

The gathering of counterprotesters downtown and its consequences illustrated the power of social media in a polarized time in history. “Because you have a younger generation who have embraced these technologies … they’re able to start social protests,” said W. Russell Robinson, a professor of mass communications at North Carolina Central University. “What you’re beginning to see is these pop-up protests.”

Tuesday’s campus demonstration in support of the people who took down the Confederate statue also happened because of social media, Robinson said.

Durham filmmaker Rodrigo Dorfman was using Facebook Live as part of his documentation of Friday’s demonstration. He first heard about the supposed Klan march from a friend, but saw the counter march develop on social media.

“What you have is a non-hierarchical organization,” Dorfman said of the demonstration. Instead of a top-down structure of organizing, with social media “people can be mobilized very quickly,” he said.

The gathering of demonstrators downtown had consequences for local businesses and institutions. Duke University encouraged managers at downtown offices to allow employees to leave early because of traffic congestion the demonstration produced. Police closed a portion of East Main Street. Jack Bonney, manager of Carolina Soul Records, which is located on a closed portion of the street, said the demonstration cut into sales. The store closed from about 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and opened again at 2.

The demonstration also affected some of the services at the Durham County Human Services Complex on East Main. The street in front of the building was left open, but visitations for foster care children shut down early, said Pamela Purifoy, spokesperson for Durham County Social Services. Other services continued throughout the day, Purifoy said.

Attorney T. Greg Doucette was in court with a civil case, which was postponed. He first heard about the Klan march when a judge informed him that officials were trying to get people out of the court quickly. “It was all slow and orderly,” Doucette said of the exodus.

Friday’s events also illustrated how digital media are supplanting traditional media.

“What’s unfortunate is that anyone can have access to this platform,” Robinson said. “It allows legitimate messages as well as messages of panic to circulate.”

As the demonstration continued, other social media posts urged people to be more circumspect about the credibility of posts.

Dorfman acknowledged that social media’s down side is its potential to spread rumors. “It was a fascinating day [that] showed the power of social media,” Dorfman said.

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