Gateway journalism review - 2016

Twitter's narrative

By Ben Lyons

In the days following Michael Brown’s Aug. 9, 2014 shooting, social media became a part of the ongoing conflict in Ferguson.  Beginning the day of Brown’s death, activists such as Michael Skolnik, editor at Global Grind, tweeted witness accounts in which Brown was shot holding his hands up. These were widely circulated.

The following day, St. Louis Alderman Antonio French and others were documenting “hands up” protests.

The two biggest peaks in Twitter traffic in 2014 both centered on Ferguson — Aug. 14, the day of President Obama’s remarks, and Nov. 24 and 25, the days surrounding the grand jury decision.  About 10 percent of all tweets sent that year in the United States related to Ferguson.

This was a fire-hose of public opinion allowing journalists and researchers instant access to raw information and the speech of millions, but the resulting record is “noisy.”  The conversation was joined by voices ranging from protesters and their sympathizers to those opposing the protests and even the virulently racist.

GJR’s analysis looks at how influential Twitter users, many of whom were unknown before the protests, transmitted and shaped this story — how the conversation around the “hands up” narrative and symbol evolved over time, and how it impacted the media and the public.


Big Picture

Abe Kamarck, writing for the data analytics website the Fox and the Hedgehog, looked at Twitter posts about Ferguson using Crimson Hexagon, a program that identifies statistical word-use patterns looking at all public posts. He found 39 percent of Ferguson posts supported the protests, with only 15 percent classified as “anti-protester.” The remainder were neutral or unclassifiable.

Of the pro-protester tweets, Kamarck’s analysis found those discussing the details of the shooting or the grand jury accounted for 31 percent.  Nearly half — 49 percent — dealt with the police’s conduct toward protesters, and another 18 percent were related to protest organization and tactics. According to Kamarck, only 2 percent discussed the events in the context of larger social problems.

Pew Research Center lent more support to such a lopsided breakdown. Pew’s Journalism Project found that 86 percent of #Ferguson tweets were directly related to Brown’s killing or the protests it fomented. In dramatic contrast, Instagram, the photography-oriented social media platform, hosted a conversation in which 62 percent of #Ferguson posts dealt with institutional racism beyond Ferguson.


Analyzing the “Hands Up” Conversation

 On Twitter, “hands up” came to be employed across each of these categories, though — first in framing the shooting, then as a protest rallying cry (and instruction) and finally as shorthand for systemic issues. Seeing how discussion around the phrase changed over time required working backwards, starting with a roster of key voices and capturing their posts through Twitter’s Advanced Search function. This allowed for some clarity in all the noise: Seeing how the use of the “hands up” phrase evolved among organically identified leaders of the movement.

As Northeastern communication professors Sarah Jackson and Brooke Foucault Welles argue, Twitter users intentionally retweeted posts that situated the shooting and protests in the broader context of police brutality and institutional racism. This may be why the percentages in Kamarck’s and Pew’s findings seem low — the actual experience of following the conversation on Twitter was likely different.  Posts that looked beyond the here-and-now were more likely to be shared.

Jackson and Welles also found the tweeting public was more likely to draw attention to local residents and activists in the first days of the protests. They call such individuals “counterpublic elites.” Their Twitter activity on the first week following the shooting (Aug. 9-15), the dates surrounding the grand jury decision (November 25 - December 3) and the period following the DOJ report (March 2015) was the focus of GJR’s analysis.  More specifically, only their posts that included the phrase “hands up” were queried.


August 9-15: A movement begins

 While cable news did not cover Brown’s shooting untilMonday, two days after it occurred, about 146,000 relevant posts were made to Twitter on Aug. 9 when he was killed.  #Ferguson, #MikeBrown and #StLouis were all among the most tweeted topics within hours. Most of these posts addressed supposed witness accounts, particularly those in which Brown was shot in the back or with his hands up.

Just after 1 p.m. on that Saturday local rapper Emanuel Freeman (@TheePharaoh) tweeted from inside his home the view of Brown’s body face down in the street, along with running commentary. Freeman estimated that seven shots were fired — two in the back, and then a “barage [sic]” when he turned around. When asked why Brown was shot, Freeman answered “no reason! He was running!” This stream of tweets was surfaced by Rolling Stone national-affairs reporter Tim Dickinson and then covered as a story by multiple news outlets (Mashable aggregated it Aug. 9; the LA Times, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and others ran it a week later on the 15th. Even Breitbart ran it on Aug. 16).

By the next day, “hands up” tweets were largely protest documents, and Antonio French was the most prominent documentarian.  In contrast, “Anonymous” account @youranonglobal shared a Vine of the protest (Twitter’s six-second video format) but received only four retweets.


A complicated relationship 

 While the shooting itself and the subsequent protests would remain the focus of “hands up” posts on Twitter, homegrown elites such as Johnetta Elzie (@Nettaaaaaaaa) and rapper Tef Poe (@TefPoe) extended into media criticism. Tef Poe used Twitter to call for increased coverage: “We just got in front of the CNN cameras chanting hands up don't shoot. Let’s see if it makes the news.”

 Cherrell Brown (@Awkward_duck) later gained attention with a similar coverage critique: “What the news won't show you is protesters standing in front of stores, hands up, blocking looters from getting in. #ferguson.”

Meanwhile Elzie used the site to post ostensible video refutation to media framing: “cnn is reporting the police were greeted with violence?!? #HANDSUP is now considered VIOLENT?!”

 Within a few days, ‘Anonymous’-affiliated accounts were positioning themselves as more visible news sources, prefacing tweets with “BREAKING.” While @TheAnonMessage’s account would be suspended for misidentifying the officer who shot Brown (only to return as @TheAnonMessage2), the audience for these secretive actors was growing.

‘Anonymous’ accounts soon became destinations for live-streams of hands-up protests. As Joan Solsman and Ian Sherr of CNET point out, Ferguson footage broadcast via the Livestream iPhone app reached some 2 million viewers each night during this time, while CNN’s primetime broadcasts only pulled in more 1 million viewers twice. These Anonymous accounts also worked to link Ferguson with global activism networks. As the first week of protests drew to a close, their “hands up” posts featured solidarity marches in New York, Miami, and Washington D.C. They live-streamed #NMOS14 — National Moment of Silence demonstrations intended to draw attention to police brutality, integrating #handsup into a broader dialogue.

Over the course of the week, “hands up” activists’ collective relationship with the mainstream media became complicated. The activists began by routing around network news, filling a void while criticizing its existence. But as the story gained steam, a sort of synergy emerged.  TV news ran their amateur photo and video, and as more news outlets began covering Michael Brown’s death in earnest, Twitter users pointed to traditional media sources as backup for the claim Brown had been shot with his hands raised.

 In the end, Twitter users and the media appear to have given a dual signal boost to the “hands up” narrative, reinforcing one another.


Did the media follow?

But did Twitter’s head-start on the Ferguson story put it in the position to shape the media’s agenda?  LexisNexis’ database of news archives provides some indication of how the media writ large covered the shooting.  Searching Lexis Advance News Directory shows between Aug 9. and Aug. 15, a total of 3,698 stories including the terms “Michael Brown” and “Ferguson” in the full newspaper archive, and 739 in the TV transcript archive, a baseline against which story frames are compared.

Looking at accounts of the shooting within these results, the newspaper stories included the “hands up” phrase 149 times. “Hands up” appeared in 150 TV transcripts, just more than 20 percent of the total. “Shot in the back” appeared in seven newspaper articles and nine TV segments. “Executed” — a word used by Brown’s mother in interviews — appeared in newspapers 80 times and on TV 67 times, or in about 9 percent of transcripts. “In cold blood” also appeared in six TV transcripts.

Meanwhile, “assaulted the officer” cropped up in 16 newspaper articles and 28 transcripts (just under 4 percent). The phrase “take his weapon” was used in nine broadcasts, but no news articles. Overall, in both print and broadcast, though, “hands up” and other similar phrasing outweighed Brown-as-aggressor phrases almost six to one.

Both media often referred to Brown as a “kid” — 237 occurrences in print and 232 on TV — and both employed the “gentle giant” metaphor in 17 cases. But the terms “thug” (11, 16) and “gang” (57, 42) also appeared.

It’s clear the TV broadcasts covering Ferguson were more likely to hit both sides’ hot spots explicitly. That may be a part of the medium’s tendency toward simplified talking points and conflict, while print news is more cautious about inflammatory language. Lacking information about the context or valence attached to these phrases, we get a picture of journalists trying to tell both sides. Regardless, the “hands up” storyline had been transmitted to news audiences.


Impact on the public

 Meanwhile, examining public search data — Google Trends — shows how that media agenda mattered to the public.  Use of this analytics tool has grown in recent years, allowing journalists to gauge upticks in the importance of issues to the general population.

Given sufficient data, Google Trends awards a score from 0 to 100 for each inputted search term across the units of time selected by the user.  While it provides indication of change in interest over time, the 0-100 output has no quantitative meaning — all scores are relative, with 100 always representing peak volume. However, this is valuable in comparing sets of search terms with one another, as with the competing frames surrounding Michael Brown.  Still, results are only used here to suggest very general patterns.


‘Thug’ or ‘kid’?

 GJR ran two analyses for this time period. The first set compared common competing characterizations of Michael Brown: the negative terms “thug,” “gang” and “criminal record,” versus the more sympathetic terms “kid” and “gentle giant.” All search terms included Michael Brown’s name, such that Google searches including the terms “Michael Brown thug” were compared with “Michael Brown gentle giant,” and so on.

The second set looked at searches about how Brown’s shooting unfolded. This comparison included “hands up” and “shot in the back” terms as well as “assaulted” and “punched” — the account that Brown was the aggressor.  As with the first set, each search term including Brown’s name.

In the weeks following Brown’s death, searches connecting him with the words “thug,” “gang” and “criminal record” outpaced more mild characterizations of “kid” or “gentle giant.” While the negative search terms tracked with “kid” in the days following the shooting — albeit at greater volumes — “thug” and “criminal record” were disproportionately searched on August 25, the day of Brown’s funeral.

Graphic: Sarah Shelton

Graphic: Sarah Shelton

However, the comparison of shooting accounts showed the public was more likely to have searched for “Michael Brown hands up” and “Michael Brown shot in the back” than the “assaulted” or “punched” terms during this time frame. In particular, searches for “shot in the back” soared on August 18, the day Michael Baden, who performed a private autopsy on Brown’s body, said the results could be consistent with either police or witness accounts.


Graphic: Sarah Shelton

Graphic: Sarah Shelton

These results paint a complicated picture. While the execution-style account of Brown’s death clearly captured the public’s attention more than one in which he grappled with Darren Wilson, there was also more association with criminal characterizations than benign descriptors. This pattern persisted in the November data.


Nov. 25 to Dec. 3: Backlash to the backlash

In the time period surrounding the grand jury decision, the counter-public accounts responded to a backlash against the “hands up” movement.  St. Louis Rams players angered police on Nov. 20 by raising their arms above their heads in solidarity.  On Twitter, Cherrell Brown (@awkward_duck) lashed back: “And now ‘hands up’, an all mighty proclamation that ‘I want to live’ is ‘inflammatory’. Along with everything else that Black [people] do.” Brown and others put the response in the context of longstanding constraint on blacks: “Can’t put our hands up. Can't keep hands down. Can't play with toys. Can't play music too loud. Can't walk to store,” she wrote.

Leading up to the grand jury decision, much of the focus shifted to #darrenwilson. At the same time, though, "hands up" become a connector for a much broader national conversation on policing, extending to include #EricGarner, #ICantBreathe, #ShutItdownmovement,  #TamirRice, #DarrienHunt, #JohnCrawford, and finally #blacklivesmatter.


March 2015: What now?

 By March, “hands up” posts were at their sparsest. This tracks with public salience: Overall interest in Ferguson had only two peaks, in August and late November-December. Google Trends data shows there was no spike in March around the DOJ report.

Those who were talking discussed why “hands up” still mattered despite the report.  An argument made by Bassem Masri (@bassem_masri), a St. Louis-based live-streamer, was typical: Invalidating “hands up” does not invalidate injustice.

Daniel Jose Older (@djolder), a Brooklyn-based writer, tweeted “No, Hands Up, Don’t Shoot was not ‘built on a lie’” — the headline to a Christian Farias New Republic piece he linked to in his post. In the New Republic article, Farias wrote that “[b]ecause Ferguson stands for [‘a shocking and revolting episode in law enforcement’] and so much more, protesters have every right to keep on marching, with their hands up, for as long as there’s neither justice nor peace.” Older and many other activists shared the sentiment as they grappled with the DOJ report in March.

Others offered refutation of the narrative’s apparent unravelling. Hands Up United (@handsupunited_), the social justice organization formed by Tef Poe and others, pulled Darren Wilson testimony quotes in support of the “hands up” account.

While Ferguson activists attempted to define or re-define what “hands up” really meant, popular culture was moving in. The movement was mainstream, which brought tension exemplified in posts by Ashley Yates (@brownblaze), an activist originally from Florissant. Yates express dismay at a creeping commodification in the entertainment industry:

From both sides, “hands up” had become something needing defending.

Making a myth

It's complicated