Summary (TL;DR):Ferguson was the most tweeted about topic in America in 2014. It seemed to sharply divide the nation. But the Ferguson topic on Twitter was not always a simple red vs. blue debate. Ferguson was a complex and layered problem where a single incident sparked significant protests and a nationwide movement. In this case, debate over the cloudy details surrounding the shooting and the violence associated with the protests created so much noise that more important discussions on race in America were often drowned out.
Ferguson was the most Tweeted Topic in 2014
2014 had several major news events from ISIS to Ebola. But nothing exploded on Twitter like the events in Ferguson and the situation surrounding the shooting of unarmed 18-year old Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. The two biggest spikes in twitter traffic in 2104 both had to do with the events in Ferguson. On August 14th, 2014, there were over 1.1 million posts on twitter. Then, on Nov 24th and 25th, the days surrounding the grand jury decision for Office Wilson, saw 2.6 million and 2.1 million tweets respectively. Between August and December, 2014, an average of 5,000 people a day posted about Ferguson on Twitter. Tweets about the shooting and the Ferguson protests – and only those tweets related to Ferguson, Michael Brown and Darren Wilson – accounted for approximately 18 million tweets or about 10% of all tweets in 2014.
Outside of what was happening on the literal streets of Ferguson, twitter probably best captured the conversation or debate that unfolded.
This post uses Crimson Hexagon‘s Sentiment Analysis tool to try and figure out what America was saying about Ferguson on Twitter.
Note: this post tries to look at the events and analysis of the twitter conversations in the most objective way possible. I do not mean to minimize the death of eighteen-year old Michael Brown by referring to his shooting as the “incident” or “event.”
All loss of life is tragic and personally my heart goes out to his parents and family.
Making Sense of #Ferguson
The Ferguson debate is much too nuanced and complicated to be easily divided into the typical sentiment analysis categories of “Positive, Negative, Neutral.” Ferguson was a single sparking incident that led to a nationwide debate and multiple protests.
There were many different layers that people wanted to discus (or yell about) on twitter.
First there was the debate over the shooting of eighteen year-old Michael Brown. Was he a criminal or a good kid? Were his hands up? And all said and done, did he really need to be shot and killed?
Second, there was the debate over the grand jury decision. Should Officer Darren Wilson have been indicted? Was justice served or is our court system biased?
Third, there was the debate over the protests. Were the protests mostly peaceful with a few bad incidents or did the protesters actively spur and encourage full-scale rioting and looting?
Fourth, there was the debate over police tactics. Why do police have military grade weaponry? Did the Ferguson Police Department violate constitutional or human rights? Did they make matters worse of did they contain the problem?
Lastly, there were the bigger and more important questions. What is the root societal problem that caused this situation? Is there a prejudice and injustice inherent in our legal system that unfairly targets young black men? Or is racial injustice a cultural mirage drummed up by agitators?
Unfortunately, the bigger and more important questions were not addressed as much or as often, because the sparking incident ended up overshadowing the debate. The bigger discussion on race in America was often drowned out, because so much of the conversation was focused on the sparking incident and its cloudy details.
The fact that the protests were associated with severe acts of vandalism and looting that lasted for days further complicated the debate and provided a lot of fuel to the Anti-Protesters’ arguments.
The result: an important national discussion about race in America was drowned out by A LOT of noise.
The Two Sides of #Ferguson on Twitter
After cutting through the noise, there were clearly two “camps” on Twitter. These two camps are not all encompassing by any means and yes, there are also multiple sub-groups and subterfuges. But, GENERALLY speaking there were two basic camps on twitter in the Ferguson debate.
#BlackLivesMatter / #Justice4All
The “Pro-Protester camp” were protesters, sympathized or empathized with the protesters. This “camp” sees the Michael Brown shooting as an example of a bigger injustice in American society where young black men are often guilty until proven innocent. It also views the shooting as an example of a callous, apathy towards the lives of young black men in American society.
#Race-Baiting / Anti-Protesters
The opposite “camp” varies more in opinion, but supports the police (in this instance) and is anti-protester. Basically, they do not believe there is a legitimate reason to protest. This camp does NOT believe black men are unfairly targeted. This “camp” is also divided, providing two different “explanations” for the shooting and the protests. The Anti-Protester camp either blamed the entire situation on “race-baiting” or “the community.”
The Race Baiting Argument: This group blamed the protests and racism in general on “race baiting” political leaders. This group denies the existence of racial injustice in America and blames other’s perception of racial injustice on political leaders. This camp argues that there are political leaders trying to inflame hate and divide communities in order to advance themselves politically.
The Race-Baiting Argument
The Community Argument: The alternate and less prevalent argument assumes that the problem is with the African-American community itself, especially in places like Ferguson. This theory simply assumes that members of the black community are targeted by the police, because they commit more crimes. Video footage of Michael Brown stealing Cigarellos from the convenience store before being shot and the vandalism and looting that followed the protests were used extensively in tweets to support this argument.
It’s the Community’s Fault
What America said about Ferguson on Twitter
From August 9th to the end of 2014, the Twitter-verse overwhelmingly supported the protesters. 39% of all tweets on this topic supported the protests and the peaceful protesters, vice only 15% that could be classified as “Anti-Protester.”
The remaining 46% of tweets were classified as neutral (41% of total) and another 5% were classified as “just plain crazy”…because that’s what they were. Examples of crazy tweets would be claims that the US Government released Ebola in order to cover-up Ferguson, etc…
While this may look like a victory for the Pro-Protester camp, it should be noted that twitter demographics tend to skew towards the young and educated who were more likely to support this camp along political lines. However, the demographic skew on twitter alone is not enough to explain a 39 to 15 weighting.
There were reports of violent threats against police on twitter. One St. Louis man was charged with threatening police on twitter. However, in this analysis, there were so few tweets supporting calls to violence against police or inciting any other kind of violence or vandalism that these tweets were actually very hard to find. The vast, vast majority of tweets supporting the protests were peaceful.
Did the Protests Work?
Looking at the sentiment breakdown is interesting, but it doesn’t really tell us much. The heavy weighting suggests that more of America supported or at least sympathized with the protests in Ferguson and the overall rallying cry. However, despite this success, a further breakdown of all the tweets led to a different conclusion.
The hypothesis is that the protests and the twitter campaigns sparked by the shooting of Michael Brown “failed” (in 2014); because they failed to drive greater awareness of the root problem and set a path towards change. The incident ended up overshadowing the greater movement.
After looking at thousands of pro-protester tweets, I broke-down these tweets into four sub-categories:
- Organized Protests – tweets organizing or talking about the peaceful protests that took place
- #BlackLivesMatter – tweets about the bigger social impact and problems (did not necessarily use the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag)
- Shooting / Grand Jury Decision – tweets about the details of Michael Brown’s shooting and the grand jury decision
- Anti-Police Tactics – tweets about over-handed police tactics when dealing with the protesters
Here is the problem with the protest movement – In the Pro-Protester camp, tweets discussing the bigger problem (#BlackLivesMatter) counted for only 2% of the pro-protester tweets. Tweets organizing or talking about peaceful protests accounted for 18%. Tweets discussing the details of the shooting and the grad jury decision accounted for 31% and tweets discussing the police tactics towards protestors accounted for almost half of all the tweets!
The movement failed, because it did not raise its signal significantly above the noise.
In the Twittersphere, the #BlackLivesMatter meaning was sometimes drowned out in the torrent of tweets about the shooting, grand jury decision and police reaction to protestors – all of which sensationalize and distract from the national problem that the protests were supposed to highlight.
#HandsUp – Confusing the Issue
The “Hands up” protest is a great example. This protest statement along with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag were some of the best communication tools used to express the real societal frustration that was driving the protest movement.
Unfortunately, these statements were not as effective as they could have been. First, #BlackLivesMatter was drowned out by its own supporters. The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was tweeted 1.58 million times in 2014. But there were 2.16 million tweets from the pro-protesters about the grand jury decision.
The Hands Up protest movement was a also great use of symbology to replicate and represent the injustice the protesters were trying to create awareness about. It went viral with high profile Hands Up events spreading across the country, and one of the most news worthy protests happened right in St. Louis with the St. Louis Rams players showing the “Hands Up” protest sign before their game. Unfortunately, what could have been a very effective and viral meme, was often undermined by its origin story.
The “Hands Up” protest was supposed to symbolize the injustice felt by African-american communities all over the country at the hands of police. But the protest movement was too closely tied to the story of Michael Brown. An early account from the death of eighteen-year old Michael Brown was that he had his hands up and was surrendering to the officer when he was fatally shot – sparking this protest meme. But different eye-witness accounts painted completely different pictures of whether Michael Brown was charging Officer Wilson or surrendering with his hands up and three different autopsy reports also gave different accounts. In the end, it is impossible to know whether Michael Brown had his hands up or not.
Protesters around the country reportedly didn’t really care whether Michael Brown had his hands up or not.
“Even if you don’t find that it’s true, it’s a valid rallying cry,” Ferguson protester Taylor Gruenloh told the AP. “It’s just a metaphor.”
“This is not about one boy getting shot in the street, but about the hundreds just like him who have received the same callous and racially influenced treatment,” – Gabe Johnson (Reported by the AP)
But, the Hands Up protest movement became so tied to the actual shooting that a lot of the conversation on twitter focused on Michael Brown – Pro-Protester tweets often focused on Michael Brown’s “Hands Up” stance…
…leaving the discussion open for detractors to try and undermine the entire movement, by bringing up contrary evidence.
In the end, the Hands Up message was often lost or confused, because instead of advancing into a discussion about what can be done to in America to prevent police shootings in the future, the conversation always went back to Michael Brown.
In #Ferguson…the Media Dominated…and Confused
36% of all tweets on Ferguson were news reporting, mostly live reporting from the protests and on the grand jury decision.
Yes, Ferguson was a media frenzy.
While there were many extreme opinions on Twitter, it was actually media reporting that really seemed to dominate Twitter feeds. The shooting and subsequent events – the protests in Ferguson, the looting, the police response and the sympathy protests around the country – created a national media frenzy that was live tweeted on twitter.
Normally in any sentiment analysis it is relatively easy to differentiate between neutral news reporting and opinion or sentiment, but media tweets about Ferguson increased the noise and made it harder to find the signal. Media reporting from Ferguson clouded the analysis in two ways.
Too Many Cooks….
Like the blind men and the elephant, a single media tweet or story from “the field” would focus on a single anecdotal event, e.g. the militarized response from the police or a store that was looted. These single lens stories without context on a twitter feed looked like biased opinions and were often used to support different camps.
Crowd powered Journalism did not seem to help
Second, despite the constant references to Ferguson being a “War Zone,” and the dramatic tweets from reporters “scrambling for their lives,” the fact remains that Ferguson, Missouri is not and never was a war zone. So unlike, Syria or Iraq, it was both easy and safe for all kinds of media to travel to the area and live report / live tweet everything that happened. Ferguson ended-up with every possible local and national media team trying to standout with the best tweets AND every online, counter-culture and startup media organization trying to do the same.
The problem is that the “new media” journalists didn’t see to have any different insights than the mainstream media when it came to reporting events. In a race for eyeballs, or twitter followers, they seemed to tweet out just as fast and furiously the same exact observations as their mainstream brethren.
Also, with new media organizations, it’s easier to promote bias. While, I am sure many of these startup media organizations are helping to disrupt journalism in a positive way, when looking at sentiment around a topic like Ferguson it’s difficult to discern the neutral reporting from those trying to push an opinion.
Tweets or links to biased stories sometimes confused the algorithm and had to be manually corrected, for example:
The Gateway Pundit is a Tea Party blog and while it is possible for a political or ideological blog to post a neutral news story, the above tweet is anything but neutral. In this example, a single fuzzy photo of what looks like a child outside a store being looted in Ferguson (the child is not actually participating) is being used to erroneously infer that the entire Ferguson community is looting.
Normally more data helps paint a clearer picture. But the media frenzy around Ferguson seemed to only produce more noise. Very few news sources tried to use their position to create a timeline or data and instead just tweeted anecdotes that added to the confusion.
There was very little full-scope analysis and everyone took it upon themselves to act like news agencies, often confusing the issue or including rumors. The term “Breaking” was abused quite often.
Ferguson needed Analysis, not reporting
What Ferguson reporting needed was perspective not constant insinuations that Ferguson was a “war zone.”
Here are some more positive examples…
The FiveThirtyEight blog was the only media source to try and add perspective to the grand jury decision. FiveThirtyEight put together a piece using data from Federal grand jury indictments that demonstrated that a grand jury not indicting is extremely rare (only 11 out of 162,000 did not indict)…except for police shootings, where grand juries only indicted one out of 81 cases. Data driven news helps put the events into perspective and drives the debate to a higher level.
Second, the CATO Institute also used data to show that police convictions are extremely rare – police are convicted for shootings only about 33% of the time. CATO went further and was one of the only media outlets (though CATO is technically a think tank) to assert that the protesters and looters were not the same people.
With respect to the unrest in Ferguson, there seems to be a reluctance to acknowledge the crimes that are being committed by thugs who are taking advantage of the situation. It seems wildly inaccurate to say that protesters have started fires and are looting stores, for instance. The people doing that are criminal troublemakers, not “protesters.”
Large scale social change often follows the same pattern:
- A single incident sparks deep-seated frustrations in a society, creating a tipping-point
- A small band of leaders effectively use that spark to start new conversations and demand action
- The idea spreads and becomes a movement and starts to overcome pluralistic ignorance
- People realize that they are not alone and more join in
- The movement becomes national and becomes bigger than the spark
Why #BlackLivesMatter Stumbled
Obviously the violence that accompanied the protests in Ferguson clouded the issue and did not help the #BlackLivesMatter movement. These incidents likely did an extensive amount of damage to the movement, but the #BlackLivesMatter protest movement had a bigger problem.
In movements that have been highly effective in mobilizing people around a cause and driving change, often the sparking incident is quickly forgotten. The movement gains momentum from new stories and continues to evolve. For example, the Facebook pages We are All Khaled Said and We are All Hamza Al-Khateeb both sparked the Egyptian and Syrian revolutions respectively. What started out as social media memes resulted in changing an entire region. Most people now familiar with the events in Egypt and Syria probably don’t even recognize the names: Khaled Said or Hamza Al Khateeb. In these cases the movements quickly became bigger than the sparks.
Note: I am not comparing the events in Ferguson to full-scale revolution or suggesting that this type of revolution should be a goal in America.
The problem with #BlackLivesMatter and the “Hands up, Don’t Shoot.” protests is that in 2014 these movements could not shake the sparking incident. The bigger ideas were drowned out by debate around the details of Michael Brown’s death and the focus on the grand jury indictment. Too much focus was put on the grand jury decision and not enough focus was put on educating more people in America about the larger problems and what can be done to fix them.
The addition of the Eric Gardner story and the #ICantBreathe hashtag should have helped the movement gain momentum and move beyond the Michael Brown shooting, but it didn’t. The November grand jury decision ensured that the conversation stayed focused on Michael Brown, Officer Wilson and Ferguson.
Protest leaders might defend their focus on Ferguson and the shooting of Michael Brown by claiming that it is representative of their cause. But the problem was that the success or failure of the movement or quest for social change/social justice becomes too intricately tied to that initial incident. The goal of these movements is to show how this problem affects ALL of society, not just Ferguson and not just Michael Brown.
Lastly, focusing too much on a single incident allows detractors to too easily pick-apart your argument. With regards to the Michael Brown case, this is exactly what happened. Detractors could easily create noise and distract from the greater message by picking apart the cloudy details of the initial shooting or even spreading false rumors around the initial incident or assassinating the character of the victim.
Lessons Learned for #BlackLivesMatter
#BlackLivesMatter is not dead. Now that the grand jury decision is well in the past, the movement can focus on continuing the message.
In 2015, if supporters want #BlackLivesMatter to have real impact, the movement needs to grow organically through the promotion of the bigger idea and not by tying itself to single events.
Leaders need to assess where the message is failing and why, and then try to use new stories and messaging that can emotionally connect with the sectors of society that are either ambivalent or uninterested.
Lastly, the movement needs a clearer call to action that people can support. Popular support and organized protest cannot and should not influence a grand jury decision. However, it can influence policy and create positive changes in politics.
Photo Source: @Reuters