Black Lives Matter and Online Media

Beyond the hashtags: #Ferguson, #Blacklivesmatter, and the online struggle for offline justice,  Deen Freelon, Charlton D. McIlwain, and Meredith D. Clark‘s full 92-page report for The Center for Media & Social Impact at American University on the #Blacklivesmatter movement’s uses of online media in 2014-2015, has just been released. blm


IN 2014, a dedicated activist movement—Black Lives Matter (BLM)—ignited an urgent national conversation about police killings of unarmed Black citizens. Online tools have been anecdotally credited as critical in this effort, but researchers are only beginning to evaluate this claim. This research report examines the movement’s uses of online media in 2014 and 2015. To do so, we analyze three types of data: 40.8 million tweets, over 100,000 web links, and 40 interviews of BLM activists and allies.

Most of the report is devoted to detailing our findings, which include:
» Although the #Blacklivesmatter hashtag was created in July 2013, it was rarely used
through the summer of 2014 and did not come to signify a movement until the months
after the Ferguson protests.
» Social media posts by activists were essential in spreading Michael Brown’s story nationally.
» Protesters and their supporters were generally able to circulate their own narratives on
Twitter without relying on mainstream news outlets.
» There are six major communities that consistently discussed police brutality on Twitter
in 2014 and 2015: Black Lives Matter, Anonymous/Bipartisan Report, Black Entertainers,
Conservatives, Mainstream News, and Young Black Twitter.
» The vast majority of the communities we observed supported justice for the victims and
decisively denounced police brutality.
» Black youth discussed police brutality frequently on Twitter, but in ways that differed
substantially from how activists discussed it.
» Evidence that activists succeeded in educating casual observers on Twitter came in
two main forms: expressions of awe and disbelief at the violent police reactions to the
Ferguson protests, and conservative admissions of police brutality in the Eric Garner and
Walter Scott cases.
» The primary goals of social media use among our interviewees were education,
amplification of marginalized voices, and structural police reform.

In our concluding section, we reflect on the practical importance and implications of our findings. We hope this report contributes to the specific conversation about how Black Lives Matter and related movements have used online tools as well as to broader conversations about the general capacity of such tools to facilitate social and political change.

Collaborative Online Social Media Observatory (COSMOS)

In Big and broad social data and the sociological imagination: A collaborative response published in Big Data & Society, the new open access journal from Sage (July-December 2014 vol. 1 no. 2) authors Williambd&s Housley, Rob Proctor, Adam Edwards, Peter Burnap, Mathew Williams, Luke Sloan, Omer Rana, Jeffrey Morgan, Alex Voss and Anita Greenhill discuss the challenges of big data to sociologists. The “adoption of a new generation of distributed, digital technologies and the gathering momentum of the open data movement,” according to the authors, grounds the work of the Collaborative Online Social Media ObServatory (COSMOS) project.

What is the Collaborative Online Social Media ObServatory (COSMOS)? Based in the UK, it is made up of a team of collaborators from Cardiff, Warwick and St. Andrews Universities (by and large the above authors) whose aim is to bring together “social, computer, political, health, statistical and mathematical scientists to study the methodological, theoretical, empirical and technical dimensions of social media data in social and policy contexts.” COSMOS

These collaborators keep a watchful eye on ethical issues  related to the new methodological tools being developed to harvest and evaluate digital data.

Publications include the COSMOS Online Ethics Resource Guide which is brief but rounds up an up-to-date bibliography on internet research ethics, including the 2012 Recommendations report by The Association Of Internet Researchers (AOIR).

COSMOS is also an open source software platform developed by the Project to access and analyze social media and other forms of digital data. Use of this software–they claim it requires no programming ability–is free to academic or non-profit researchers.