The Carrot Blog

Social media is now the fastest way to share information on a local and global level. From a quick access source for the latest news, to a public forum for large scale discussions around human rights and the role of government, social media provides a space for both. It is the medium that transmits data in multiple forms—text, photo, video—with content ranging from cute cat pics to more serious, philosophical subjects. Topics, when tracked in social media, show distinctly different trends depending on the nature of the discussion taking place.

The chart below depicts topics mentioned across social media to show trends in the online discussion surrounding the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Using Netbase, a social listening tool, we collected mentions of Ferguson and relevant topics, isolating the mentions for each topic to see how they trended.

Ferg Line

Timeline

  • Saturday, 8/9/14
    Ferguson police shoot and kill Michael Brown.
  • Sunday, 8/10/14
    Ferguson top topics in social are: police, Michael Brown and murder (132k total mentions).
  • Monday, 8/11/14
    Looting mentions trend (46k). Reports of rubber bullets used to disperse crowd, but not yet trending in social (22 mentions).
  • Tuesday, 8/12/14
    Tear gas starts trending (60k), as well as rubber bullets (16k).
  • Wednesday, 8/13/14
    Police arrest two reporters covering the protests. Ferguson mentions dip 23% from the day prior.
  • Thursday, 8/14/14
    The day President Obama comments on Ferguson, police, murder, tear gas and protests, topics trend together, while civil rights (144k), militarization (102k) and rubber bullets (57k) mentions peak. Michael Brown mentions also peaked on 8/14 (483k) and then again on 8/18 (333k) trending in tandem with mentions of police, protests and civil rights, suggesting the use of Michael Brown's death to facilitate social change.
  • Friday, 8/15/14
    Police release name of the officer and surveillance tape. Darren Wilson mentions peak (62k). Highway Patrol mentions trend (50k) while protest mentions decline (by 56% from the prior day) with most mentions acknowledging Highway Patrol’s success at keeping the peace.
  • Saturday, 8/16/14
    Looting mentions peak again (63k, +505% from the day prior).
  • Sunday, 8/17/14
    Mentions of civil rights start trending again (+55% from the day prior).
  • Monday, 8/18/14
    MO Governor brings in the National Guard (106k mentions).
  • Tuesday, 8/19/14
    Protests becomes the third most mentioned topic for the first time (194k mentions).
  • Wednesday, 8/20/14
    Ferguson mentions decline 42% from the day prior.
  • Thursday, 8/21/14
    Ferguson mentions continue to decline another 36%.
  • Friday, 8/22/14
    Although Michael Brown mentions trend up slightly (+14%), overall Ferguson mentions continue to decline (-34%). On 8/22, Huffington Post releases an article entitled "21 Numbers That Will Help You Understand WHy Ferguson Is About More Than Michael Brown," that got roughly 11k FB likes, 25k FB shares and nearly 600 tweets to date.
  • Saturday, 8/23/14
    Ferguson mentions continue declining (by 35% from the day prior).
  • Sunday, 8/24/14
    Highway Patrol and Rick Perry mentions start trending (increasing 26% and 67% respectively from the day prior), although overall Ferguson mentions continue to decline (-23% from the day prior).

Another Look

This chart shows the same topics as a percentage of Ferguson mentions to show how much each topic was included in the daily conversation. Looking at this chart, we can see that initially, the story of what happened in Ferguson was relatively simple. On Saturday 8/9 and Sunday 8/10, the conversation focused primarily on the police murdering Michael Brown.

Ferguson Stacked

On Monday 8/11 and Saturday 8/16, we start to see the emergence of looting in the overall conversation, as well as other topics that flow out of the initial event. Tear gas becomes one of the top topics mentioned from Tuesday 8/12, and in the following week. We see civil rights mentions gaining traction in the conversation building from 1% on 8/10 to 4% on 8/14, and back down to 1-3% in the days to follow. Similarly, militarization discussion emerges after 8/11 and remains steady in the conversation, included in 1-3% Ferguson mentions.

So What?

There are topics that trend in social that are a direct response to the occurrence of an event, such as looting (8/11, 8/16), the involvement of the Highway Patrol (8/15) and National Guard (8/18), and the release of Officer Darren Wilson’s name (8/15). These events caused an appearance of a new topic in social media as people responded to new news. In the chart above, we see these topics emerge suddenly as a mass of color that did not exist prior; they tend to fizzle out as the news becomes older.

However, there are also topics that emerge as part of the deeper conversation around the news events. These topics include civil rights and militarization, both emerging around 8/11 and 8/12 and steadily making up 1% to 4% of mentions in the days to follow. These topics behave differently in social media in that they are a consistent, ongoing theme of the discussions. They actually look different in the chart above; they are the continuous threads of color, unlike the news event reactions which bubble up and quickly dissipate.

These thread-like topics that remain consistent throughout the evolving discussion reflect more than just the public’s reaction to the news event. These topics involve a deeper look at the state of our government. They are political and impassioned. They go beyond the initial news event and venture into larger conversations about right, wrong and the grey area between them. They have a deeper significance, and they live among the quick and impulsive reactions in the social web.

While some brush off social chatter as flippant and shallow (i.e. slacktivism criticisms), others are having deep, meaningful discussions that have great potential to influence others and drive change.

References: A new Pew Research Center analysis of media coverage of the event and subsequent protests finds that the story emerged on Twitter before cable, but the trajectory of attention quickly rose in tandem, peaking on both mediums the day after two journalists were arrested and protests turned more violent.”

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