Graphing the Uprising: A Twitter Analysis of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement

Since the protests began in Ferguson, MO on August 9th, the day of Mike Brown’s murder, social media outlets such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have been used extensively by organizers. Much like other new protest movements and revolutions around the world, these networks facilitate information flow which transcend both spatial and temporal boundaries, spreading the messaging of the movement much quicker and further then was possible in the 1960s.

While there are many elements of the Civil Rights movement which are present in this #BlackLivesMatter movement, there also exists many structural characteristics of the new social movements that have swept Turkey, Brazil, Montreal, Spain, Greece, and many other countries since 2011. By saying this, I want to be clear that I am not referring to any ideological similarities, or even that one movement influenced the others on a fundamental level. Alternatively, I am suggesting that this current uprising is occurring in 2014, with the same new media structures that facilitate flexible organizing among diverse groups with no defined leader.

As we saw this weekend when Ferguson activists took over the podium at the event in Washington DC, this is not a movement led by the NAACP or Al Sharpton, with all organizing done at upper level meetings behind closed doors. This is a horizontal uprising where VIP Passes aren’t required, and all types of activist groups are coordinating actions, sustained through crowdsourcing, which signifies that much of their funding is directly from participants and supporters on the ground. The revolution won’t be televised, but tweeted and live-streamed, much like other new social movements. While this uprising would be just as determined without social media and other forms of bottom-up activist organizing, information is able to spread much quicker, and a diversity of tactics can be employed based on the characteristics of the participants themselves. Organizing distributed rallies, marches, die-ins, store occupations, and other replicable actions in such a short time period would be virtually impossible without Facebook groups and events, as welll as the instantaneous information sharing enabled by Twitter networks.

I wanted to take a moment and step back from the messaging and content of these social networks, instead focusing on the Twitter traffic of hashtags related to the protests. This will give us a general idea of the size of these networks of solidarity, as well as the digital spaces of dissent that they create.

I generated charts which graph the tweets per day of various hashtags, using Topsy Analytics. First, I mapped out the two most popular terms which are used by participants through the United States. Even though “I Can’t Breathe” were Eric Garner’s last tragic words, the term has been adopted as a rallying cry for the larger movement, placed on signs in public squares throughout the country.

As you can see, both #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe have been very widely used on Twitter within the last month, with a majority of the activity in December. Both hashtags have been included in over 1.3 million tweets each, and they weren’t even active for the entire thirty day period. #BlackLivesMatter spikes first on November 24th, as a reaction of the Grand Jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson after shooting an unarmed Mike Brown repeatedly in the street. Like most hashtags, it begins to descend from the spike, flattening under 20,000 tweets per day until December 3rd, the night of the Eric Garner decision. It rises back up to almost 50,000 before spiking even higher than after the Ferguson decision a week earlier..

The #ICantBreathe hashtag also comes alive after the Eric Garner decision, surpassing #BlackLivesMatter. It decreases slowly after the initial spike, but also experiences two smaller increases, which might explain how #ICantBreathe trended for over five days in New York City. Activity rose slightly over this weekend of major events, but then began to descend again. There is certainly a possibility of this hashtag spiking again, as this issue rooted in systemic racism will not disappear anytime soon

The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag levels out at well over 50,000 tweets per day after the Eric Garner decision, surpassing it’s first valley, before having a smaller spike over this weekend, which featured the Millions March in New York City and other cities throughout the country, as well as the National Action Network’s march in the National Mall in Washington DC The spike was flat, meaning that activity stayed highly elevated for a longer period, and as it descends, there still remains a high level of twitter activity which affirms that #BlackLivesMatter. More importantly, the descent is very slow, which can signal the building of a large movement and the constant presence of a linked discursive space comprised of 140-character twitter interactions.

Next, I add #MikeBrown and #Ferguson to the analysis.

We quickly see that #Ferguson far surpassed #BlackLivesMatter, with over 6.6 Million tweets within the last month. The graph is distorted because on the night of the Darren Wilson decision, over 3 Million tweets included the #Ferguson hashtag, which is a substantial amount of traffic in comparison to the rest of the month. After the very high spike, #Ferguson spends a week slightly above #BlackLivesMatter, and after the Garner’s decision, appears to descend to a comparable level as #BlackLivesMatter. The reason for this huge disparity in traffic is likely that news outlets and commentators used #Ferguson to report on the news of the verdict, which was highly anticipated throughout the world. However, as these commentators and outlets shift focus, the hashtag continues to be used by those who are directly related to the movement, whether participants or opponents.

#MikeBrown is almost not used at all, with less than a million tweets over the month, and as a result, you barely see the orange line on the graph. For those wondering, #MichaelBrown and #DarrenWilson had similarly low usage, with a small spike on the day of the decision, November 24th:

Now, lets add #EricGarner to the mix:

#EricGarner has a huge spike at 700,000 tweets on December 3rd, much less than the #Ferguson spike, possibly due to the increased worldwide attention on Ferguson, MO specifically. While #EricGarner spikes much higher than #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe, it almost immediately drops below #ICantBreathe and within a week, is less used then the other terms. #EricGarner and #Ferguson seem to represent event-based hashtags, while #ICantBreathe and #BlackLivesMatter are  movement-based hashtags, with less drastic spikes but more consistent usage.

Earlier, I mentioned that tweets which used these terms could have either been participants and opponents. While most of the top tweets for both #ICantBreathe and #EricGarner feature livestreams, vines, Youtube videos, and pictures of event coverage, information about future events, and statements of solidarity, there are also opponents who make divergent arguments using the same hashtag. I thought it would be interesting to map two of the oppositional hashtags: #BlueLivesMatter and #ThankYouNYPD.

As you can see, both oppositional tags don’t exist throughout most of the month, even after the Ferguson decision, until #BlueLivesMatter is used one day after the New York grand jury fails to convict Daniel Pantaleo for choking out Eric Garner in a clear video recording. This hashtag doesn’t increase in usage until December 10th, the day when a Pro-Cop NYPD Rally is scheduled through a Facebook event and reported on through outlets like Gothamist and New York Post. #ThankYouNYPD also comes alive with a spike on December 10th, before falling over the next few days. #BlueLivesMatter is starting to spike in traffic, although many of these tweets are from activists who are re-appropriating the hashtags.

This is another instance where the virtual networks of Twitter mirror the physical networks of urban space. The organizers behind the #ThankYouNYPD rally on Friday wanted to create a space for pro-police dialogue, and just as they schedule the event and promote using #ThankYouNYPD, they also create a comparable virtual space through Twitter, in an attempt to counter #BlackLivesMatter and other popular hashtags used by activists. However, just like the counter-rally which is also planned for City Hall on Friday, these hashtags are also re-appropriated and assigned an oppositional meaning.

While these tags begin to increase in traffic, they only have slightly over 5,000 tweets for the whole month. To put the strength and size of these pro-police hashtags into perspective, lets map them next to #ICantBreathe and #BlackLivesMatter.

Despite how ferocious the opposition to the #BlackLivesMatter movement seems, their Twitter network is very small compared to the diverse coalition of civil rights groups, social justice organizations, community groups, grassroots organizations, and others who are demanding justice for all victims of police murder.

Now, lets add #MillionsMarchNYC to the mix, which was widely trending this weekend as over fifty thousand New Yorkers took to the streets.

#MillionsMarchNYC seems to be characteristically similar to #Ferguson and #EricGarner in that they are event-based hashtags. The latter terms spiked during the Grand Jury decisions that they represented, before falling to a much lower usage than other movement hashtags. Similarly, #MillionsMarchNYC began to rise on December 12th, before peaking at around 150,000 tweets on December 13th, higher than the spikes of the movement-based hashtags. Less than 24 hours later, the term has completely dropped off in usage. #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe also experience a dip, but are still being used regularly as the dialogue continues and direct actions occur throughout the country.

There have been many articles recently which highlight the solidarity between the fast food/low-wage workers movement which has spread throughout the country over the past two years, and the #BlackLivesMatter uprising, as both movements contain many of the same members. Those who are most likely to experience police brutality within their family and friend circles are the same people who are stuck with a stagnant minimum wage which has essentially become a starvation salary in many states including New York.

How do the Twitter networks of these two movements compare? Let’s start with three hashtags which are widely used in the low-wage workers movement:

We can almost immediately see that none of these hashtags have activity even close to #BlackLivesMatter or #ICantBreathe. All three also spike on December 3rd, but this is likely because the of the fast food strikes in 190 cities that happens concurrently with the Eric Garner grand jury announcement. They all have between 10 and 20,000 tweets for the whole month, with very little usage in between the spike during the strikes. We can add #WalmartStrikers and #BlackLivesMatter, to show the massive difference between Twitter utilization among both movements,

#WalmartStrikers has slightly more usage than the other $15 Minimum Wage movement hashtags, but still only has over 72,000 tweets for the month. #BlackLivesMatter outperforms both hashtags everyday, with #WalmartStrikers only getting close during Black Friday, when thousands of Wal-Mart workers across the country went on strike. This isn’t meant to compare the movements in terms of importance or size, as the low-wage worker movement has been steadily growing throughout the country over the past few years. It is possible that the Fight For $15 utilizes more on-the-ground organizing, and also has certain days of action when Twitter usage spikes. In contrast, there have been actions in support of victims of police brutality every single day since the Ferguson grand jury decision and thus, a higher, more consistent level of twitter traffic.

Finally, I want to compare #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe with tags representing other, competing news stories. For instance, the CIA Torture Report came out on December 9th, affirming many of our worst fears about how the United States carried out torture in their post-9/11 attack on privacy and human rights. #TortureReport was used for Twitter dialogue as well as information sharing once the story was released.

#TortureReport begins to ascent on December 8th, likely in anticipation of the results. Once the report is released a day later, the activity spikes to over 150,000 tweets, which is comparable to the #BlackLivesMatter spikes which occurred after the Grand Jury announcements. However, it never spikes to the level of #ICantBreathe and also decreases very quickly after, proving to be an event-based hashtag, rather than representing a movement, which was to be expected.

Finally, we add #sydneysiege to the mix, representing the hostage situation which took place at a cafe in Sydney, Australia today:

We see that #sydneysiege has gotten extremely popular today, with 500,000 tweets and rising. It has surpassed all hashtags related to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, , including the event-based tags, except #Ferguson after the Darren Wilson Grand Jury decision. However, like other event-based hashtags, it will likely decrease in traffic sharply in the coming days.

Mapping Twitter traffic related to movements, news events, and other cultural phenomenona is very useful for understanding when topics trend, as well as the size of Twitter networks when comparing hashtag usage. When combined with sociological analysis, we can understand the relationship between Twitter activity and events which occur in our society, uncovering how and why certain hashtags trend and others don’t. However, there are many limitations, as this analysis is devoid of the most important element of Twitter: the content itself.

One conclusion of this article is that hashtags used by both #BlackLivesMatter activists on the street and participants on social networks continue to be utilized on Twitter, regardless of the occurrence of any major protests or news events. While some hashtags are event-based, short-lived and representing a snapshot in time, #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe are tied directly to the struggle of an entire population of people who are still fully not viewed as human. This is bigger than a 24 hour news cycle, and I have a very strong feeling that these hashtags are far from seeing their final spikes.

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