Social Justice Discourse on Social Media and Legacy News
The first part of our analysis begins by applying and comparing the lessons of social media messaging in the Ferguson case to on-the-ground social justice activities in Cincinnati led by @BlackLivesMatterCincy and their efforts surrounding the Sam DuBose shooting. When examining the significance of social media in shaping political discourse about events and activities related to social justice efforts, it becomes apparent that social justice movements would be well served to include media reform and strategies in their efforts. Moreover, we begin to see that despite the kind of empowerment social media can provide to social justice groups, these platforms are still subject to political pressures and manipulations.
We start the conversation about social media and social justice in the digital age by looking at the array of methods scholars have employed to study the relationship between online social networks and social justice movements. These have included quantitative content analysis, qualitative interviews, discourse analysis, and explorations of big data, applied to macro and micro level perspectives on cases in Guatemala, the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter. We enter this body of scholarship to provide a comprehensive political economic examination as well as network analyses of the relationship between social media (particularly Twitter) in contemporary social justice movements and political discourse. In addition to exploring the intended use of social media by social justice advocates, we look at how news media and other commercial interests shape discourse about social justice and politics.
We then provide a set of data visualizations that demonstrate the powerful use of social media in the aftermath of Ferguson. Through the #Ferguson case we explore the relationship between social media and social justice movements, as social media and mobile streaming applications provide a potent form of storytelling power to users across the communicative landscape. Notably, the use of social media platforms during Ferguson changed some of the relationship between news media and the public in significant ways, as social justice advocates used social media platforms to document and livestream events to a global audience. In the #Ferguson case, social media became a primary venue for public commentary about related events, and disrupted some of the gatekeeping power once held by national news outlets and talk radio in the discussion of public affairs.
Lastly, in this section, we take some of the lessons from #Ferguson and apply them to another community affected by the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer, and explore the effective use of social media platforms, as well as more traditional forms of activism, by @BlackLivesMatterCincy. Through in-depth interviews with social justice leaders in Cincinnati we learn about their social media strategies following the shooting of a black motorist by a University of Cincinnati police officer. Additionally we explore how legacy news outlets in Cincinnati covered the @BlackLivesMatterCincy group that mobilized after the shooting, and provide a critical examination of access to internet, mobile media, and legacy news among low-income groups which shapes social justice efforts in significant ways. Through further political economic analysis, we examine the need for social justice activists to adopt media reform strategies.
Social Media and Social Justice in the Digital Age
This analysis is being written in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020. Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee into the neck of Floyd, who was black, as he lay prone in the street with his hands cuffed behind his back. Floyd was unarmed, and apprehended for suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 dollar bill at a convenience store. As onlookers recorded video of Floyd as he pleaded that he could not breathe, which would be shared on social media in the weeks that followed, they also pleaded with Chauvin and the other police officers that looked on to show restraint before Floyd became unresponsive and died. Videos of Floyd’s death were shared on social media and television news outlets, as people gathered by the thousands in cities across the U.S. and world to decry police violence against black people. Throughout this period the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter trended on Twitter and other social media outlets.
With #BlackLivesMatter as an emblem, social media and Twitter in particular have become the front lines for social justice advocacy and debates following the deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of police, or neighborhood watchdogs, beginning with Trayvon Martin’s murder at the hands of George Zimmerman in 2013.
Although the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was coined during the fallout after Martin’s death in 2013, our analysis begins with the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police office in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson on August 9, 2014. This event captured national and international attention in the days, weeks, and months that followed, through the images and commentary taking place on social media. As the hashtag #Ferguson trended on Twitter, legacy media outlets followed the social media activity around the protests, militarized police response, and calls for social justice.
A similar event occurred in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in 2001 after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager. However, this was before mobile telecommunications and social media developed into what it became in the mid-2010s, and the protests taking place in Cincinnati only garnered national attention for a few days.
While some critics praised social media for sustaining interest in the events taking place in #Ferguson, others blamed it for prolonging civil unrest in the area. Nonetheless, everyone seemed to agree that social media made a difference. In examining the relationship between online social networks and social justice movements, scholars have used an array of methods, including content analysis, qualitative interviews, discourse analysis, and explorations of big data, to get macro- and micro-level perspectives on cases in Guatemala, the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter.
The power of social media to affect social justice movements was perhaps first seen in Guatemala, after the 2009 murder of Rodrigo Rosenberg, in which the victim appeared in a video recorded before (but released after) his death that blamed President Alvaro Colom for his killing. The video quickly spread on Facebook and YouTube, sparking groups to mobilize on social media. In a content analysis of some of the related Facebook pages, Harlow (2012) found that user “comments were framed to mobilize and advance an online justice movement” that also developed into offline protests and civic action, decrying the violence. Harlow (2012) concluded that Facebook offered outraged Guatemalans a forum to express opinions, organize, mobilize, and act as citizen journalists by documenting protests and activities – thus bypassing the traditional gatekeeping function of mainstream news media. While the Guatemalans that Harlow (2012) interviewed were mixed in their views about the potential role of social media in social movements, the so-called Arab Spring, which occurred two years later, would further demonstrate its significance.
In a comprehensive study that included a database of social media data from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, Howard et al. (2011) found that social media played an integral role in the Arab Spring of 2011. Conversations about revolutionary actions would take place on social media before those events would occur, and social media helped to spread information about those events across international boundaries. As social media activity and protests against repressive regimes in Tunisia and Egypt rose, those governments fell. The wave of protests and organization on social media then swept across other parts of North Africa and the Middle East as organizers and advocates for greater democracy in those nations used social media to circumvent state-controlled media. Moreover, how the Arab Spring played out on social media fostered “transnational links between individuals and groups,” allowing social justice movements to tell “compelling stories . . . in short text messages or long video documentaries” (Howard et al., 2011). Western journalists then picked up these stories from social media and carried them to audiences on traditional news outlets.
Hermida, Lewis, and Zamith (2014) looked at the intersection of journalism and activism on Twitter as a place where activists and journalists make news together. Their case study focused on NPR journalist Andy Carvin’s coverage of the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings on Twitter, and his selection of sources in the coverage. Hermida, Lewis, and Zamith found that Carvin used a significant number of “nonelite” or alternative sources on Twitter, giving credence to the claim that social media broadens the scope of voices in the media in general.
While the Arab Spring successfully demonstrated the role of social media in enabling citizen journalists, who documented protests and provided commentary outside of the gatekeeping of traditional news media, the Occupy Wall Street movement that started in September 2011 near New York City’s financial district to protest corporate corruption and governmental influence provided further illustration of social media’s power to engage individuals not directly (or physically) involved in on-the-ground demonstrations. As DeLuca, Lawson, and Sun (2012) showed, the Occupy Wall Street movement created a context for both collective activism and perceptual participation, both of which occurred outside the mainstream news media.
Additionally, the Occupy Wall Street movement showed the strategic potential for Twitter to enhance the visibility and symbolic power of social justice efforts. Wang and Liu (2015) examined Twitter data during a two-day period of Occupy Wall Street and found that strategic combinations of viral hashtags by users would mobilize public figures and other influential actors toward the movement. Using Nahon and Hemsley’s (2013, p. 16) “virality” framework that describes the flow of specific social information within one’s own social network, as well as “distant networks, resulting in a sharp acceleration in the number of people who are exposed to the message” within a short period of time, Wang and Liue (2015) found that tweets with powerful social messages had the ability to “go viral” and were helpful in making a networked social movement more prominent.
Our book enters this body of scholarship to provide a comprehensive political economic examination and network analysis of the relationship between social media (particularly Twitter) in contemporary social justice movements and political discourse. In addition to exploring the intended use of social media by social justice advocates, this work will also look at how commercial interests (through the use of bots) shapes discourse about social justice and politics. We also examine how people posting and retweeting items simply to “get clicks” shape this discourse.
However, our initial study, which aimed to focus exclusively on #BlackLivesMatter social justice cases related to #Ferguson and @BlackLivesCincy, took an unexpected turn after the U.S. presidential election in 2016, in which Russian-based operations exploited social media platforms with the intention of influencing political sentiments among different groups of Americans. Naturally, we wondered about how troll accounts, bots, and other forms of digital manipulation might have been employed amid some of the social justice events we were studying, and how these fit into election politics and the broader political economy of online social media networks.
Our scope broadened; this was similar to what Starbird (2018, Oct. 20) described, concerning a University of Washington study of the way in which “framing contests” emerged on social media about #BlackLivesMatter. After the U.S. House Intelligence Committee in November 2017 released a list of Twitter accounts that were the product of Russia’s Internet Research Agency during the 2016 election cycle, Starbird’s team realized that several of these accounts were ones that had been active in the #BlackLivesMatter conversations they had been studying. Specifically, tweets that Starbird’s team had been analyzing were not created by “real” #BlackLivesMatter activists or #BluesLivesMatter proponents; they were instead products of the Russian-based Internet Research Agency. As Starbird (2018, Oct. 20) explained, this revelation underscored the power and nuance of manipulative strategies online:
These IRA agents were enacting caricatures of politically active U.S. citizens. In some cases, these were gross caricatures of the worst kinds of online actors, using the most toxic rhetoric. But, in other cases, these accounts appeared to be everyday people like us, people who care about the things we care about, people who want the things we want, people who share our values and frames.
Moreover, as Starbird’s group discovered, Russian-based trolls had been involved in an array of U.S.-based political conversations through social media, including gun rights, immigration, and others.
While Starbird’s team kept their subsequent research focused on frames and on Russian manipulation of frames, our approach has broadened to understand various forms of influence on social media networks, including trolling activity and bullying from a variety of actors, the use of bots, as well as tweet and retweet relationships, to understand how social networks form and may be gamed. Altogether, this intersection of voices (real and fake), technology, economic concerns, and social networks forming online creates an epistemic environment that is fraught with difficulty for advocates of social justice.
The first part of the study is a big-data analysis of social justice movements at the global and local scales on Twitter, and our primary test case is #BlackLivesMatter and related hashtags that were invoked in the aftermath of the Mike Brown shooting in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson in 2014. The purpose of this initial part of our study is to provide an overview of the semantic discourse of the millions of tweets that defined the social movement globally, and examine the story elements that people tend to focus on through their use of specific hashtags. From this analysis it appears that the conversation on Twitter tended to focus on the personal meaning of story events and framed the shooting as something relatable to the posters’ own lives and experiences.
Our analysis continues in this section: we apply and compare the lessons of Ferguson’s social media messaging to on-the-ground social justice activities in Cincinnati led by @BlackLivesMatterCincy after the Sam DuBose shooting. When examining the significance of social media in shaping political discourse concerning events and activities related to social justice efforts it becomes apparent that social justice movements should include media reform and strategies in their efforts.
The second section of our book moves to a broader discussion about political discourse on social media, especially in relation to Twitter trolls, cyber-bullying, harassment, misinformation, and other behavior patterns that can undercut social justice groups’ efforts to effectively engage in political conversations taking shape online. This section focuses on Twitter activity during the 2016 U.S. presidential election cycle, when concerns came to the fore about the impact that fake news, bots, and propaganda campaigns had in shaping political dialogue.
The third and final section of our analysis brings together an examination of social justice and political discourse in critical political economic perspective. It endeavors to contribute to an ongoing critical-cultural examination of the interplay among online social networks, political economics, and social justice, including Christian Fuchs’s (2015) Culture and Economy in the Age of Social Media, which examined critical cultural theory as applied to the culture and economy of social media, and Zizi Papacharissi’s (2014) Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology and Politics, which provided an insightful analysis of the affective nature of Twitter streams within political debates. From our analysis, the political economic struggle that is taking place throughout online networks can be seen as two opposing forces: social justice efforts from the bottom up, and social propaganda from the top down, as well as other artificially created communities, in which social networks’ business models generate links between people. Here we apply Herman and Chomsky’s (1988) class propaganda model to the digital marketplace of ideas and find that too often grassroots movements can be manufactured from the top down via social media networks, confounding social justice movements and confusing epistemic validity within political discourse.
Social Media Power in #Ferguson
Our first case explores the relationship between social media and social justice movements, as social media and mobile streaming applications provide a potent form of storytelling power to users across the communicative landscape. Notably, perhaps, social media platforms have the potential to change the relationship between news media and the public in significant ways, as virtually everyone now has the ability to document and livestream events to a global audience. To say the least, social media has become a primary venue for public commentary about current events, and has disrupted some of the gatekeeping power once held by national news outlets and talk radio in the discussion of public affairs.
Some of the most poignant examples of this restructuring of communicative power can be seen in social justice movements and the instant release of imagery and commentary in the wake of multiple shootings of black men by police officers across the U.S. in recent years. For instance, Diamond Reynolds live streamed the moments after the shooting of her fiancé, Philando Castille, when they were pulled over by police for a broken taillight in Falcon Heights, Minnesota (see CNN, 2016, July 7). Videos were posted online when police in Baton Rouge shot Alton Sterling, prompting an investigation from the U.S. Justice Department. Civil unrest followed the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson in the summer of 2014. As the hashtag #Ferguson trended on Twitter, national and international news outlets followed social media activity in covering the protests, looting, and militarized police response. And in Cincinnati during the summer of 2015, Sam DuBose, an unarmed black motorist, was shot and killed during a traffic stop by a University of Cincinnati police officer. Afterwards, local community groups led by @BlackLivesCincy and @theIRATE8 quickly mobilized on social media to decry the incident and confront competing narratives that it was justified.
In this chapter we engage in a big-data analysis of #BlackLivesMatter and related hashtags that were invoked on Twitter in the aftermath of the Mike Brown shooting in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson in 2014. The purpose of this chapter is not only to present a broad overview of Twitter activity and viral hashtags after the event but also to build off our previous examination of effective discourse within the millions of tweets that defined the social movement related to the killing of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers (see Blevins, Lee, McCabe, and Edgerton, 2019). The findings presented here show how social justice groups in general, and the public in particular, use social media to provide a more diverse array of commentary about the meaning and implications of civic activity. They indicate that historically marginalized groups and the broader public have exercised their First Amendment rights in ways that have redefined the relationship between public communication, national news outlets, and international networks. Additionally, our analysis shows that in tweets in the aftermath of the Mike Brown shooting and the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, individual posters tended to relate the meaning of these events to their own lives, and framed these events as relatable to a broader array of personal experiences and events.
Freelon, McIlwain, and Clark (2016) suggested that the Internet in general, and Twitter in particular, were instrumental in developing the Black Lives Matter movement. Although the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was generated in the summer of 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin, according to Freelon, McIlwain, and Clark (2016, p. 9) it was not a popular one until August 2014, when it was frequently invoked during the Ferguson protests. Other studies have further detailed how social justice movements have effectively engaged social media in general, and Twitter in particular, to provide counternarratives to legacy news media and intensify public debate and criticism about law enforcement, as well as to allow more in-depth dialogue and personalization of the issues.
Although their study was not specifically related to the Black Lives Matter movement, Jackson and Welles (2015) showed that minority voices have used Twitter to establish effective counternarratives challenging police activity that extend into mainstream media. Gallagher, Reagan, Danforth, and Dodds (2016) found in their analysis of 800,000 tweets, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag amplified public criticism of police killings of unarmed black men. Moreover, users invoking the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag tended to have more “informationally rich conversations” that their counterparts who used the #AllLivesMatter hashtag (Gallagher, Reagan, Danforth, and Dodds, 2016). Those posters using the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag demonstrated more diversity in word usage and cut across topic networks in comparison to tweets featuring the #AllLivesMatter hashtag. Olteanu, Weber, and Gatica-Perez (2015) reached a similar conclusion, showing that blacks who engage with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag are more likely to engage the ethical dimensions and personal implications on sensitive topics.
Freelon, McIlwain and Clark (2016, p. 10) analyzed tweets from a year-long period (June 1, 2014 to May 31, 2015), which included events over two months before the Michael Brown shooting and nearly a year after, and other studies have explored the #BlackLivesMatter phenomenon on social media more broadly. However, the examination presented here focused on tweets from specific time periods related to the Mike Brown shooting (the immediate aftermath of the shooting itself, and the non-indictment of Officer Wilson) when interest and emotions were arguably highest, to better understand the story elements that individual tend to tweet about for a defined event. The purpose of Freelon, McIlwain, and Clark’s (2016) research was to study the Black Lives Matter organization, which used the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, but the hashtag itself was not the focus of the study. Additionally, Freelon, McIlwain, and Clark’s (2016) report covered the involvement of Black Lives Matter in an array of cases, including ones involving Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray. However, our data presented in this chapter focuses on an array of hashtags for just two distinct time periods related to a single event (the immediate aftermath of the Mike Brown shooting, and after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson three months later).
The time periods noted here are ripe for analysis concerning the role of social media in social justice movements. Social media provided instantaneous imagery and commentary in the civil unrest that followed the shooting, and moreover, as the hashtag #Ferguson trended on Twitter, national news outlets seemed to be following social media activity in covering the protests, looting, and militarized police response. It is clear based on the cases presented— those of Guatemala, the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and Ferguson—that social media has provided a powerful platform for previously unheard voices. Papacharissi (2015, p. 309) explained this phenomenon as affective expression in the form of networked publics that “want to tell their story collaboratively and on their own terms.” Moreover, these “affective publics” tend to “produce disruptions . . . of dominant political narratives by presencing underrepresented viewpoints” (Papacharissi, 2015, p. 19). As seen in this review of literature on social justice movements, social media have presented significant opportunities for the disturbance and redirection of dominant and oppressive narratives.
To better understand the “affective publics” described by Papacharissi (2015) for the social network analysis in this study, we adapted Entman’s (1993) approach to studying media frames, which understands how certain “schemas” (as described by Goffman, 1974) convey meaning through the selection and emphasis on certain story elements. Based on the national and international attention to the role that social media (especially Twitter) played in the after-effects of the events in Ferguson, the overarching goal of our research project was to understand which story elements people were focusing on in their tweets and hashtags.
While previous research has broadly explained how social justice movements have effectively engaged social media in general, and Twitter in particular, to provide counternarratives to legacy news media, and to intensify public debate and criticism of law enforcement apparatuses, our examination evaluates the most-used and impactful hashtags in the immediate aftermath of a specific event (the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson). We look at change over time by analyzing trigger events where the hashtags originally invoked during the immediate aftermath of the shooting might spike again, including (most notably) the legal decision to not indict police officer Darren Wilson for the killing. Specifically, we asked the following sets of research questions:
What were the most used and impactful hashtags in the immediate aftermath of the Mike Brown shooting in Ferguson? This question entails both a quantitative and qualitative component. First, we wanted to know which hashtags, quantitatively, went viral and were used most frequently in tweets. Second, we wanted qualitative assessment of the meaning and implications of those most popular hashtags. What kinds of messages (or frames) did they convey? Did they focus on places and names in the story (as an event), or did they provide commentary, a call for action, or something else?
We also wanted to examine change over time by analyzing what we imagined would be triggering events where the hashtags (invoked during the immediate aftermath of the shooting) might spike again, including legal decisions such as Darren Wilson’s non-indictment. What we wanted to know was which were the most used and impactful hashtags after the non-indictment. This requires both a quantitative and qualitative analysis: which hashtags were used most frequently after Darren Wilson was not indicted, and what were the meaning and implications of those hashtags?
As described in Blevins, Lee, McCabe, and Edgerton (2019), we extracted every tweet from across the globe posted in the four months after the Michael Brown shooting from the open-source Twitter historical archive (https://archive.org/details/twitterstream) related to #BLM, and created a network showing which users and regions responded to one another during that intense period from August 2014 (the month of the Michael Brown police shooting) to December 2014 (the aftermath of the Darren Wilson non-indictment).
We developed an automated extraction process in Python 2.7 to extract the Twitter data, and to search the data for a number of specified terms, from hashtags to words in tweets. The program stores these results by day as a flat JSON file, formatted in two ways, with one data structure for exploring tweet-retweet relationships, and another data structure for viewing basic descriptive statistics about the search terms.
The tweet-retweet relationship data structure builds arrays of nodes and links based on the Twitter historical archive. Nodes consist of users in the searched data, and links are built between those users and others who retweeted them. In this process, we preserve important data, such as tweet text and time of tweet, for more detailed exploration. These nodes and links are visualized using a modified D3.js force-directed graph that is filterable by time.
The descriptive statistics data structure creates elements for every search term in every tweet and groups each of these elements according to several parameters (i.e., retweet vs. original tweet, time of day, day of week). We built a data visualization dashboard with the crossfilter.js and dc.js libraries for filtering and visualization. The descriptive statistics visualizations allow for interactive explorations of these data:
- Black Lives Matter August Networks
- Black Lives Matter August Statistics
- Black Lives Matter November-December Networks
- Black Lives Matter November-December Statistics
Textual Analysis of Hashtags
Based on the unexpected dominance of conceptual tags, such as #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, we did a qualitative textual analysis of the use and significance of some of these hashtags. One of the more notable elements of these hashtags is that they included first-person personalization of the issue. Using the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, individuals juxtaposed two dissimilar images of themselves: one, a wholesome picture of the individual, perhaps attired in cap and gown at a high school graduation; the other, the same person in street attire, maybe holding an alcoholic beverage or cigarette. The question being: if the police killed me, which picture would be in the news—the wholesome high school graduate, or the menace to society? By featuring two contrasting images of the same person, these posts demonstrated that one picture alone doesn’t tell the whole story of a person; and questioned the tendency of news media to focus on the one image that contributes to the “menace to society” narrative.
In reaction to eyewitness accounts that Brown was surrendering with his “hands up” before being shot, several posts on Twitter using the hashtag #HandsUpDontShoot featured images of people holding their hands up. One of the most potent was a video of kids on a school bus chanting: “hands up, don’t shoot.” The message suggested that Michael Brown “could have been me,” and engages concern about police officers overestimating the threat posed by black suspects, and too quickly responding with deadly force.
Social media appeared to change the relationship between news media and the public, as tweets and posts did more than just reiterate the images and messages from traditional news outlets about the events in Ferguson. Rather, social media was the platform for people in Ferguson to document what was happening to a global audience, and the primary venue for public commentary. For instance, the conversation from (and about) Ferguson reached as far as the Middle East, where Palestinians tweeted in solidarity about racial injustice (see Goldstein, 2014, Aug. 15). Several players for the then–St. Louis Rams attracted international attention when they came on to the field before a National Football League game imitating the #HandsUpDontShoot thread on Twitter (McCormack, 2014, Nov. 30). Social justice advocates were able to help drive the local, national, and international conversation through social media.
From this broader qualitative examination, it appears that social media provided a forum for a community in Ferguson, and for the public at large, to tell its own stories in the aftermath of the shooting and challenge the images that tend to pervade national news. In a mediated world dominated by national outlets, social media allowed the public to exercise its First Amendment rights in a way that changed the balance of communicative power, and enhanced everyone’s ability to relate the meaning of the events in Ferguson to their own personal lives.
The data visualizations presented here bring shape to our understanding of social movements and political action as it plays out on social media. For instance, our network visualizations provide a more visceral form to what a “social movement” may look like as it develops on social media, compared to more conventional appearances in terms of strikes, protest marches, and sit-ins.
Moreover, the visualization of movements taking place on Twitter can reshape our understanding of how political action takes place in the digital era. We have used network analysis techniques to track how social justice hashtags attain a “viral” status, and have found that factual and descriptive hashtags, including proper names such as #MikeBrown and place names such as #Ferguson are the first wave of hashtags that become viral. More conceptual and ideological markers, like #BLM, registered only faint activity in the immediate aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting. But after one to two weeks, they dominated the discourse and captured more media attention. In examining change in the hashtag behavior over time by analyzing triggering events where the hashtags register large increases in activity, legal decisions such as Darren Wilson’s non-indictment, and the death of Eric Garner, appeared to have contributed to the personalization of the events.
The results of this study support Papacharissi’s (2015) explanation of social media activity as an affective form of expression for groups and individuals about social justice issues. By telling their own stories, on their own terms (as indicated by the conceptual hashtags), these “affective publics” disrupted the power typically held by mainstream news outlets, and in the process, changed the conversation from one that focuses on basic story elements (people, places, and events) to one in which the meaning of the event is more internalized (e.g., #IfTheyGunnedMeDown; #ICantBreathe). What is unique in the aftermath of the Mike Brown shooting is that the most meaningful hashtags were the ones that helped to frame the shooting as something relatable to the posters’ own lives and experiences. These conceptual hashtags framed the event as something personal—if “I” were gunned down, “I” can’t breath, etc. Twitter users did more than just use the platform to comment on an event (#MikeBrownShooting) that occurred at a particular place (#Ferguson); and even more than reinforcing popular ideological frames (e.g., #BlackLivesMatter vs. #BlueLivesMatter). Rather, the conceptual frame presented in the #IfIWereGunnedDown hashtag was more dynamic—as it personalized the issue for both blacks and whites. In the juxtaposition of images of a single person, blacks showed that police and legacy media tend to unfairly characterize them based on appearance; whereas whites demonstrated an awareness of their own privilege—that in similar situations, police and media do not make the same assumptions. The employment of personal conceptual frames in hashtags is ripe for further qualitative analysis in other cases.
For advocates of social justice, we would also caution that social media, as a platform, is not just about liberating the voices of the marginalized. Papacharissi’s (2015) explanation of affective expression of networked publics can also be applied to hate groups. While social media has helped social justice advocates to be more effective storytellers, it also empowers hate groups and others who use these digital tools as forms of intimidation through trolling and cyberbullying, and social media mobbing, in which targets are relentlessly barraged with insults, threats, and vulgar memes intending to drown out more respectful voices in the process (see Blevins, 2016, Aug. 28). How social media can be used to disrupt social justice efforts, empower hateful expression, or practice intimidation is also deserving of further scholarly attention from communication researchers.
Furthermore, the set of visualization and text-mining tools on social media data employed in this study can transcend social justice applications, and we envision that our social network analysis method can have broad applications across disciplines. In developing the project presented here and its results, we aim to make the machine learning algorithms that we have applied to the Twitter archive, as well as the visualizations we developed from the data, accessible on a cloud platform as online research tools for scholars and students to analyze social justice hashtags and the social media discourse at a big-data scale.
While the data visualizations in this chapter bring light to how discourse about social justice takes shape on Twitter, it does not contextualize on the on-the-ground efforts of social justice advocates, or make clear how social media is only one part of their media strategy. Our next chapter explores some of the historical background of social justice movements in their struggle and relationship with legacy news outlets to deepen our understanding of social media’s significance in the present landscape.
Affected and Effective: @BlackLivesMatterCincy
In the early 21st century, social media has emerged as a critical venue for social justice discourse and activity, especially for black people in the U.S., as control over legacy media outlets has become increasingly concentrated with few minority owners (see Blevins, 2019; Blevins and Martinez, 2010). This chapter provides an in-depth interview with social justice leaders in Cincinnati about their social media strategies following the shooting of a black motorist by a University of Cincinnati police officer. Additionally, we explore how legacy news outlets in Cincinnati covered the @BlackLivesMatterCincy group that mobilized after the shooting, and provide a critical examination of access to internet, mobile media, and legacy news among low-income groups, access that shapes social justice efforts in significant ways. Accordingly, we examine the need for social justice activists to adopt media reform strategies.
As Mourao et al. (2018) showed in their content analysis of five newspapers during the first wave of protests in Ferguson after the Mike Brown shooting, “initial stories were predominantly episodic and focused on violence to the detriment of demands and grievances” expressed by social justice advocates. While the newspaper coverage was also critical of the militaristic police response, and eventually addressed issues related to race and police brutality, Mourao et al (2018) concluded that newspapers should provide more “contextual narratives behind social movements’ actions,” rather than focusing on protester activities and police response.
Similarly, Kilgo et al. (2018) argued that “mainstream media’s narrative choices marginalize and delegitimize protesters and their causes,” and their longitudinal content analysis of national newspaper reporting showed that coverage before the judicial rulings in the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown cases “focused on protesters’ tactics (violence versus peaceful)” and only moved to the realm of understanding ideas about grievances after the assailants were cleared of legal wrongdoing.
A similar motif seemed to play out in local news coverage in Cincinnati following the 2015 shooting of Sam DuBose, an unarmed black motorist, who was killed during a traffic stop by Ray Tensing, a white University of Cincinnati police officer. Shortly afterwards, local community groups led by @BlackLivesCincy and @theIRATE8 quickly mobilized on social media to decry the incident and confront competing narratives that it was justified, and continued to utilize multiple social media platforms in a sustained effort that involved a broader array of social justice issues beyond the DuBose shooting.
To explore local news coverage of the Sam DuBose shooting in Cincinnati we conducted a Boolean search of keywords on the websites for legacy outlets from the period of July 2015 (when the shooting occurred) through November 2016 (when Tensing was acquitted of murder). Our search terms were “Sam DuBose,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Black Lives Matter Cincinnati” and “Irate8.” The news organizations covered were The Cincinnati Enquirer (the city’s daily newspaper), CityBeat (the alt-weekly paper), as well as television stations WXIX-TV (the city’s FOX affiliate) and WCPO-TV (the city’s ABC affiliate). We excluded from analysis the city’s African-American newspaper, The Cincinnati Herald, as well as the city’s other network-affiliated television stations (WKRC-TV, CBS and WLWT-TV, NBC) due to the limited functionality of conducting keyword searches on their websites. Our content analysis showed the following mentions in each outlet:
Keyword mentions in Cincinnati legacy news: July 2016 – November 2016
Black Lives Matter
Black Lives Matter Cincinnati
A couple of interesting points maybe noted here: First, newspapers were more likely to distinguish “Black Lives Matter Cincinnati” (the local group in their reporting) from the more general reference “Black Lives Matter,” as The Enquirer and CityBeat mentioned the local organization in 15.7 percent of their stories, compared to 9 percent for WXIX and WCPO combined. Furthermore, The Enquirer and CityBeat mentioned Black Lives Matter Cincinnati (20 references) almost as often as Black Lives Matter (27 references), while WXIX and WCPO more often referred to Black Lives Matter (32 references) than Black Lives Matter Cincinnati (13 references). Meanwhile, the Irate 8 student group was only mentioned a total of five times across all four outlets, three of which were in CityBeat.
However, in reading through each of the 269 stories across the four media outlets, CityBeat tended to use “Black Lives Matter Cincinnati” and “Black Lives Matter” interchangeably, or simply used the term “activists” to umbrella the organizations under one entity. CityBeat did mention past cases of police brutality in Cincinnati and other U.S. cities such as Ferguson and Baltimore, thereby providing some national context, similar to the tweets in the Ferguson case (as described in Chapter 2). In 12 of CityBeat's 37 articles about the Sam DuBose shooting, there was at least some reference to a history of police brutality in Cincinnati, or other U.S. cities.
Only four of WXIX’s 43 media stories about the DuBose shooting contain some mention of past police brutality in Cincinnati or the U.S. Furthermore, WXIX rarely mentioned “Black Lives Matter Cincinnati” (two mentions), and never mentioned the Irate 8 in its coverage. Rather, the station tended to use blanket terms, such as “protestors” and “demonstrators.”
A noted feature in WCPO and The Enquirer’s coverage was that both outlets often noted that “Black Lives Matter” or “Black Lives Matter Cincinnati” organized a rally (or march) in an article's headline or photo cutlines, but would not specifically call the activity a Black Lives Matter or Black Lives Matter Cincinnati event in the actual article. In one case, an article included a tweet that depicted a poster for an event honoring Sam DuBose, which read "Organized by the family of Sam DuBose, Black Lives Matter Cincinnati, and the Irate 8." However, the article only stated that the DuBose family would hold the event. Other articles would mention that Black Lives Matter Cincinnati scheduled a rally, but the follow-up article would not mention who organized the event.
Both WCPO and The Enquirer often referred to Black Lives Matter supporters as "protestors," and photos showing Black Lives Matter Cincinnati members did not mention the group in the cutlines. Similar to CityBeat and FOX19, WCPO and The Enquirer used “Black Lives Matter” and “Black Lives Matter Cincinnati” interchangeably. For example, WCPO referred to Brian Taylor as a “Black Lives Matter” organizer instead of a “Black Lives Matter Cincinnati” organizer. The Enquirer referred to Ashley Harrington and Brian Taylor as “Black Lives Matter” steering committee co-chairs in some articles and “Black Lives Matter Cincinnati” steering committee co-chairs in others. However, similar to CityBeat and FOX19, WCPO and The Enquirer often mentioned past cases of police brutality in Cincinnati and other U.S. cities in their coverage of Sam DuBose. Overall, the legacy news media in Cincinnati did not provide the kind of dynamic expression found in social media in the Ferguson case from Chapter 2.
The social media activities utilized by @BlackLivesMatterCincy and @theIRATE8 represented the kind of affective expression from networked publics as described by Papacharissai (2015, p. 309) that “want to tell their story collaboratively and on their own terms”. Moreover, these “affective publics” tend to “produce disruptions . . . of dominant political narratives by presencing underrepresented viewpoints” (Papacharissi, 2015, p. 19). Based on an interview with two social justice organizers in Cincinnati, we explored how social media presented significant opportunities (and some challenges) for affective publics to engage in effective social justice efforts.
“The Irate 8” group name refers to the percentage of University of Cincinnati’s student body who are black. The organization launched a website (http://www.theirate8.com/) and social media accounts on Twitter (@theIRATE8) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/theirate8/). Although the shooting death of an unarmed black motorist during a traffic stop by a white university police officer was the initial focusing event for the group, their scope of concern quickly broadened to include reforming policies on University of Cincinnati’s campus, including retention of black students and increasing faculty diversity. TheIRATE8 keeps a log of media coverage of the organization by legacy news outlets (see http://www.theirate8.com/in-the-media.html), which also provides a record of their impact on civil discourse about social justice issues.
The DuBose shooting was also a focusing event for @BlackLivesCincy, but the group has also addressed a much broader range of social justice issues on its Twitter account and Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/BlackLivesMatterCincinnati/), including transgender rights, support for rape survivors, refugee and immigration policy, poverty, healthcare, environmental justice, and many others. Certainly, the organizational acumen of these groups was a primary reason for their successes, but their engagement with social media and utilization of digital media resources to tell their own stories have also been instrumental factors.
One of the primary concerns expressed by two of the leaders of Black Lives Matter Cincinnati (BLMC), Mona Jenkins and Christina Brown (who was also a member of The Irate 8), was the tendency of legacy news media to inaccurately associate people, activities, and statements to their group. In following local news coverage, Brown said that it seemed like “anybody black and not happy” was associated as “a member of our organization, particularly if they’re behaving in a way that’s perceived as unlawful” (Brown, 2017). Jenkins added: “Semantically, they’re members of Black Lives Matter, when we don’t even know who they are” (Jenkins, 2017). Both Jenkins and Brown expressed frustration over news media coverage that misrepresented BLMC despite the group’s efforts to be a disciplined entity of organizers. However, social media played an important role in allowing BLMC to exercise greater control over its own message. Brown (2017) said, “when there is something to be said in our name we will say it in our name,” and explained that social media allowed the group an immediate form of communication to make its statements more clearly. Rather than getting caught off guard by interview requests from news media, group members can now direct reporters to statements posted on BLMC’s social media accounts.
In addition to better message control, social media provided another “avenue of connection” for BLMC, as part of the group’s comprehensive approach, which included email, public posters, and door-to-door canvassing (Jenkins, 2017). However, Jenkins (2017) expressed concern about the “digital divide” and noted that many people in the communities they are trying to reach do not have internet access in their homes, and in some cases do not have television. Brown (2017) added
we have at least a few folks who are like, “how can I find out about what is happening because I don’t have a phone, and I don’t have a computer.” It’s sobering to me as a black person, who still has more access than the majority of black folks who have lived in the city for generations. Even if we are able to create access to the media that exists, what is it telling us about ourselves? . . . All we see are mug shots and gunshot victims.
Although Brown (2017) sees social media as an important part of BLMC’s community-building strategy, she said that it is important to “learn more and more about the limitations of digital access of any kind, whether it's the TV or the internet.”
One of the drawbacks for social justice groups’ use of social media as an organizing tool is that it affords an easy, and often anonymous, way for detractors to post threats and hateful messages.
This is definitely an issue of Facebook, the level of harassment that we receive and the threats of violence. And they’re not always direct, but when people post picture of dead black folks and say this is what you all deserve . . . I’ve seem some very vitriolic stuff posted on our accounts . . . it’s worth noting that white supremacists from all over the world attack things on our pages, send us messages. We get a lot of hate commentary. (Brown, 2017)
Jenkins (2017) added, “We also get a lot of love too.” While Brown (2017) acknowledged the affirmation BLMC receives from supporters, she stated:
I think there’s an assumption that we do things without putting ourselves at risk and we put ourselves at risk for something greater than ourselves. It’s important to note that this not all reward. The reward is in what will come and building people in the process. We are people and threats to harm us are very real.
While there are serious concerns about threats and harassment for social justice group members who are active on social media, and despite the lack of mobile and internet access for low-income community members, social media is a promising venue to advance social justice efforts. The greatest asset that social media provides is a platform for the social justice movement to tell their own stories and circumvent some of the framing and filtering functions of traditional news outlets.
However, it is not always possible for local activists to avoid the broader framing from news media and other groups. In 2018 BLMC distanced itself from the wider BLM movement by changing its name to Mass Action for Black Liberation (MABL) and declaring its own agenda (see Jackson, 2018). Besides local news media often conflating BLMC with BLM more generally, MABL wanted to distinguish itself from some aspects of BLM’s political program.
Nonetheless, social justice groups and the public use social media to provide a more diverse array of commentary about the meaning and implications of civic activity, allowing historically marginalized groups to exercise their First Amendment rights in ways that have disrupted the gatekeeping power once held by national news outlets and international networks. Social media channels have also boosted the livelihood of social justice movements.
The use of mobile streaming video technology (MSVT), such as Facebook Live and Periscope, which can be used with Twitter, have also emerged as important in broadcasting and documenting events of interest to social justice movements.
MSVTs are best understood as something akin to live broadcast television with two major differences. First, their use of mobile phones to capture and stream good, quality video means that anyone, anywhere, has the ability to become a live video broadcaster so long as they have a capable smartphone, and this represents a significant change in the barriers for entry to live streaming. Second, dissemination of this video is highly decentralized along social network lines, meaning the power to capture audience attention for events such as news has shifted away from the singular format of the television channel such that it now includes distribution along social networks. (Stewart and Littau, 2016, p. 316)
While social media have proven to be valuable platforms for social justice movements, it is important to keep in mind that these outlets and MSVTs depend upon broadband telecommunication networks that are subject to the same forces of neoliberal economic philosophy and cultural politics that affected legacy media outlets.
The growth and popularity of social media raise an important question about the usefulness of these platforms, and access to broadband technologies that deliver them, to help advance the cause of recent social justice movements. For instance, the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) was part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) and provided over $4 billion in federal grants to be administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce and National Telecommunications and Information Administration to help facilitate broadband internet access and adoption in unserved and underserved areas of the U.S., including rural and urban regions. The BTOP grants also presented an opportunity for media reformers to connect their digital justice efforts to the broader social justice movement. For instance, the Detroit-based Allied Media Projects, and Philadelphia’s Media Mobilizing Project, used the occasion to build coalitions among media reformers and social justice groups focused on an array of concerns, including urban housing, workers’ rights, and environmental issues, among other causes (see Breitbart, 2016). However, long-term efforts to sustain broadband access and media diversity in the FCC was cut short by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2011 when they passed an amendment to their spending bill defunding Chief Diversity Officer Lloyd’s salary at a time when he was working to spread broadband internet access to low-income people (Eggerton, 2011, Feb. 17). The BTOP funding was a one-time occasion, but as Breitbart (2016, p. 113) observed:
it provided an opportunity for an enduring impact on broadband in the United States. In Philadelphia and Detroit, we were able to use the grant-seeking process as a vehicle for visioning and organizing, and for bringing new voices and audiences into the conversation about our shared digital future.
Long-term social justice movements playing out on social media should take note that their efforts should not be divorced from the media reform movement. As Freedman and Obar (2016, p. 7) recognized:
We cannot rely on mainstream media to adequately represent our lives as they are lived, to hold power to account and to reflect honestly on the media’s own interconnections with established power; we are forced to make our own media.
In today’s media-saturated world, social justice depends on communication platforms that allow for access by all, and to all.
Those committed to media reform for social justice will also need to bear in mind that they will face “formidable challenges,” including the following:
Entrenched commercial interests and media conglomerates; . . . neoliberal governments; a general public often disenfranchised, digitally illiterate and not focused on issues of media reform; and always, the uphill battle of organization, mobilization, and influence. (Freedman and Obar, 2016, p. 3)
Furthermore, because blacks and other racial minorities are more likely than whites to rely on mobile broadband services for access to social media applications, they are also more prone to discriminatory marketing practices based upon predictive analytics of their personal data through pay-for-privacy plans, or service tiers required by their broadband providers (see Blevins, 2016, p. 26). Consequently, social justice efforts toward media reform must encompass the principle of network neutrality to provide better access to information, and call for greater privacy protection online to help ensure that social justice advocates are not sanctioned for their choice of online activities.
Still, the “struggles for communication rights are part of a wider challenge to social and economic inequalities and an essential component of a vision for a just and democratic society” (Freedman and Obar, 2016, p. 5). Free expression, and the means of free expression, are worth struggling for, and they are an essential component of social justice in the digital age. As Bill Moyers said in his keynote address to the 2007 Media Reform Conference in Memphis: “freedom begins the moment you realize someone else has been writing your story, and it’s time you took the pen from his hand and started writing it yourself.” Furthermore, the principle of free expression is dynamic and includes not only the individual liberty of self-expression but also the freedom to receive a diverse array of expression from a variety of sources to better inform ourselves about social, economic, political, and cultural matters. When everyone speaks they do more than just empower themselves—they empower everyone else by making the informational and expressive climate richer, more meaningful, and better informed.