Piedmont Park hanging reaction shows power of social media

It started as an apparent suicide.

But it soon had officials trying to dispel online rumors of a “modern-day lynching,” a Ku Klux Klan sighting and a conspiracy by law enforcement and the news media to cover it up.

After a black man’s lifeless body was found hanging from a tree in Piedmont Park about 4 a.m. Thursday, Atlanta police officials released a routine statement saying the death was an apparent suicide. News and media outlets moved slowly to cover the death since it is general practice to not report on suicides.

But Twitter users, many of them on edge in the wake of two recent videotaped shooting deaths of black men at the hands of police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota, did not believe the police narrative.

“For it to have so little coverage, it seems like the police could have been hiding something,” a Twitter user told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Suddenly, Piedmont Park became a trending topic on Twitter, where some users made statements that the KKK had been in the area the day before and that the death was a lynching.

By midday Thursday, Mayor Kasim Reed had to release a statement addressing the growing rumors. He said the case had already been referred to the FBI.

On Friday, Reed addressed the speculation during a news conference.

“It’s a classic example of a lie getting around the world before the truth wakes up,” Reed said.

The Atlanta police said Thursday the KKK was not in the area that night and that the claims on Twitter were speculation.

“I’ve been following internet and social media chatter and they are saying things that are just not true,” Reed said. “We have found no evidence to the rumors of the KKK in Piedmont Park.”

The response shows yet another situation in which social media shaped a narrative and forced not only news coverage, but a response from government.

Jennifer Keitt, a social media expert from Atlanta, said that the environment, timing and “Jim Crow era symbol” of a noose all helped spur the social media outrage.

“I think it was just the perfect storm as it relates specifically and only to that story,” Keitt told The AJC. “If that particular instance would have happened in another week that didn’t have so much volatility, it wouldn’t have trended the way it did.”

When asked why the FBI was called in to investigate an apparent suicide, Reed contended the agency was contacted well before the story went viral. Reed said it was never “a question of whether the FBI would be involved.”

“We made the judgment that it was best to call our partners at the FBI because we did not want there to be a hint of a cover-up,” Reed said. “I wasn’t driven by social media. The (police) chief and I talked early that morning, and because of the circumstances, the cleanest action was to have the FBI as a partner.”

The AJC reached out to the FBI to ask how the organization will proceed with the investigation. “The FBI is not commenting on the matter at this time,” spokesman Stephen Emmett said.

The identity of the man has not yet been released and the cause of death is pending an autopsy.