Beyond the hashtags: #Ferguson, #Blacklivesmatter, and the online struggle for offline justice

By Deen Freelon, Charlton D. McIlwain, and Meredith D. Clark | February 29, 2016

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The views expressed in this report are the authors’ alone and are not necessarily shared by the Spencer Foundation or the Center for Media and Social Impact. 

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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 initially spreading Michael Brown’s story nationally.

» Protesters and their supporters were generally able to circulate their own narratives 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, but in ways that differed substantially from how activists discussed it.

» Evidence that activists succeeded in educating casual observers 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.

About the authors: Deen Freelon is an assistant professor of communication at American University. Charlton D. McIlwain is an associate professor of media, culture and communication and Associate Dean for Faculty Development and Diversity at New York University. Meredith D. Clark is an assistant professor of digital and print news at the University of North Texas.

Please send any questions or comments about this report to Deen Freelon at [email protected].

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