July 17, 2013

Tweeting for Trayvon

While the not guilty verdict is in for George Zimmerman, the discussion about and ramifications of Trayvon Martin's killing seventeen months ago are only beginning, from protest marches throughout the country to tweeting with hashtags like #MillionHoodies. Plenty of people smarter than us have weighed in on what this means for the persistent racism and inequity of the justice system in the United States, so we'll leave that side of the analysis to them. But as we specialize in thinking about and analyzing the geographies of social media, we want to offer our own two cents on what we can collectively take away from the case based on an analysis of geotagged tweets reacting to George Zimmerman's acquittal for Trayvon Martin's slaying.

First, some quick notes on our methodology and general trends in the data. Using DOLLY, we collected all the geotagged tweets from July 1 through July 15, referencing either "JusticeForTrayvon" or "Not Guilty", capturing the usage of these phrases with or without an accompanying hashtag. There were a total of 27,863 tweets referencing "Not Guilty" in this time frame, and just 6,614 referencing "JusticeForTrayvon". We calculated location quotients using hexagonal binning in order to normalize the data based on a relative measure of tweeting activity, as well as to account for differential size of counties or other similarly arbitrary areal units [1]. More simply, this allows us to compare the relative level of Twitter activity in any particular location, rather than relying on raw counts which are biased by population density.

Timeline of Tweets Referencing "Trayvon" from July 13th-14th

In addition to our primary interest in the spatial dimension of tweeting, we're also able to visualize a timeline of tweeting activity, which shows a clear spike immediately following the verdict on Saturday evening around 10 pm. While we're sure that many people's timelines were filled with reactions to the verdict throughout the day on Sunday, it seems as though much of the tweeting became more dissipated throughout the day as protests heated up and others went back to their usual routines.

Taking a look at the spatial patterns of these keywords, there are some clear differences. While there are many fewer JusticeForTrayvon tweets overall, they tend to be generally scattered, but with some relative concentrations largely in the south, in cities like Shreveport and Alexandria, Louisiana and Durham, North Carolina. Again, these measured are normalized for overall level of Twitter activity and thus show that these places were more engaged in this topic via Twitter than other parts of the country.

References to Not Guilty, however, in addition to being far more prevalent, demonstrate significantly more clustering in areas of the country outside the south, especially in Texas (depending on whether or not you consider it to be Southern) and some of the Midwestern or Mid-Atlantic states. We should note that there is a greater concentration references to Not Guilty in the vicinity of Sanford, Florida, the location of Trayvon Martin's killing and the subsequent trial, than was visible in references to JusticeForTrayvon. 

It is also important to note, however, that large cities on the west coast, like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, have relatively little tweeting about the case for either term, as do major cities along the eastern seaboard, like New York, Boston, D.C. and Philadelphia, despite being the sites of the major protests following the verdict.

Comparing references to the two terms -- while keeping in mind that they are not entirely oppositional, i.e., "Not Guilty" is a much more neutral and contextually dependent phrase than JusticeforTrayvon, which explicitly 'takes sides' in this debate -- reveals a much clearer geographic pattern. This comparison brings the different geographies of these phrases into a stark contrast, with many more references to JusticeforTrayvon concentrated throughout the southern states of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Kentucky (highlighted in purple), with a greater number of more generic references to the verdict (highlighted in green) scattered throughout much of the rest of the country. In short, the hashtag that is more closely associated with protesting the outcome of the court case, is more highly concentrated in Southern states.

One thing that is clear is that although the experience of racism isn't unique to the American South, it is uniquely associated with and experienced in that place when viewed through geotagged social media content [2]. This isn't to say that the tweeting about the case throughout the south is, in and of itself racist, as many, if not most, tweets express outrage at Zimmerman's acquittal, as evidenced by the large number of tweets referencing the JusticeForTrayvon hashtag. But given the back-and-forth around the particularity of racism in the south or the universality of racism across the United States, the higher concentration of this Twitter discussion within the region suggests a process distinct from the rest of the country.

The fact that Trayvon Martin's killing took place in Florida, which shares a similar history with regard to race as the rest of the south, has clearly elicited a broader reaction from those in a (relatively) similar geographic context. The complexities of racism (both historical and contemporary) as expressed in part through problematically-enforced laws like stand-your-ground come to the fore in the south at a time like this, as can be seen in the much higher-than-usual tweeting about the case in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas. If anything, the outpouring of tweets throughout the south in support of the Martin family and in favor of a more sensible and equitable justice system serves to destabilize the common narrative that the south is unitary, coherent region populated by those clinging to nineteenth century racial mores. The south is, like any other place, marked by conflict and contradiction, something evident nowhere more than in the way it continues to deal with (or ignore) persistent racial inequality like that seen in Trayvon Martin's killing and George Zimmerman's acquittal.
[1] We've previously demonstrated the utility of this method for mapping concentrations of tweets about a given phenomena.
[2] See, for example, our work on mapping racist tweets in response to President Obama's re-election last November.

July 03, 2013

Welcome to 'Merica (or is it 'Murica?)

"Chicken & waffle flavored lays? #Murica."
On this day (well, technically the day before) in which we celebrate our independence from those limey redcoats and their tea-guzzling ways [1], it's time we take on one of the truly great debates tearing at the fabric of our country... 'Merica? or 'Murica?

When dropping the first letter of America (either sarcastically or to preserve our limited supply of vowels), is it more correct to (a) continue as if it were still there and use the term 'Merica? or (b) produce an altogether different word, 'Murica, to express our facetiousness and/or lack of spelling ability?

For instance, the emotionally incensed Twitter user below makes a compelling argument for 'Merica:
"P.s. please stop spelling it #murica or #mericuh or any other variation. It's #MERICA. #northerngirlprobs"
In contrast, this erudite tweeter prefers the more guttural 'Murica spelling:
"I don't know Harry, I heard the French are assholes" true statement. Elated to be back in 'Murica" 
But sadly, there is no consensus around this important issue, which if left unchecked (or at least unmapped) could threaten to undermine the very foundation of the nation. Even more tragic is that someone [2] was so unthoughtful as to bring up this topic on the day in which all 'Mericans/'Muricans should join together in our hatred of everyone who doesn't acknowledge that we're so totally superior to them. As such, we dutifully bring you an investigation of this debate that you may not have even been aware of. You're welcome.

In this endeavor, we collected all geotagged tweets referencing "murica" or "merica" in the United States from July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2013, producing 12,407 references to "murica" and 80,344 references to "merica". If you believe that absolute numbers solve the debate, read no further, as we should obviously err on the side of 'Merica. But if you believe that, you must also believe that "On dit que Dieu est toujours pour les gros bataillons" [3], which we must point out is in FRENCH, and hence your opinion on this day can easily be ignored. Again, you're welcome.

Seeing as there is such a significant preference for 'Merica, we created a normalized measure at the county level to allow for geographic comparison in spite of the massive difference in usage of the terms.  Thus, the maps below illustrate counties' share of tweets for each of the two terms.

For example, Cook County, Illinois had the absolute most tweets for either term, with 201 for "murica" and 782 for "merica". But because its 201 tweets represented 1.6% of all tweets referencing 'Murica, and its 782 were only 0.97% of the tweets refrencing 'Merica, it was determined to have a relatively greater usage of 'Murica, and is shaded as such on the map. So in this first map, the areas that are the darkest shade of red are those places where that place produces a significantly greater share of the overall number of tweets for 'Murica than it does for tweets referencing 'Merica. Confused? You're welcome.

The Misspellings of America

While it might be remarked that this unusual methodology unfairly tilts the linguistic playing field in favor of the much less used 'Murica, we would respond with: who cares? This is our map and we can do what we want with it. Also, we're academics (aka commies) and are totally OK with doing things like changing the rules to benefit the less well-off. Also, note the holiday appropriate color ramp of blues to white to reds. Clever, yes? You're welcome.

As you can see, use of 'Murica tends to be associated with the east and west coasts, with there being fairly little usage of the term, even by relative measures, in the interior of the United States. So it appears that those living in "flyover country" tend to prefer the more simple 'Merica, the coastal elite like to step up their sarcasm an extra notch by exchanging an 'e' for a 'u'.

While some of the country's biggest cities -- Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, Boston, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Seattle and D.C. -- have a relatively greater amount of 'Murica-ness (or should that be 'Murica-lity), the divide between the two spellings doesn't break down along clear urban/rural lines. Oklahoma City and Indianapolis are two of the biggest users of 'Merica, while parts of the Charlotte and Atlanta metropolitan regions are also on the list of counties who believe that it's spelled 'Merica, not 'Murica.

Indeed, if you further normalize by creating a location quotient -- in effect controlling for absolute size -- a similar picture emerges, albeit one which tends to emphasize the large urban areas much less, regardless of whether they see themselves (or others) as 'Mericans or 'Muricans.

The Misspellings of America (by Location Quotient)

Unlike in the previous map, the most red end of the spectrum here actually shows the places where there is the most parity between the usage of the two spellings, even if there are still a greater number of absolute references to 'Merica than to 'Murica. So less populous counties, or those with many fewer Twitter users, such as Piscataquis County, Maine, with fewer than five or ten overall references to either term, will generally tend to be more red.

But perhaps the most interesting (and actually rather methodologically valid) ways of examining the data is to simply look at a ranked list of the top ten counties for each term. One sees here that the top ten counties for 'Merica are almost exclusively in the South, while the top ten counties for 'Murica are outside the South and within large metropolitan areas. So, our working hypothesis (which we suggest you discuss over beer and burgers on this fine day), is that 'Murica is likely a derivative of 'Merica, used ironically by slow-pour-coffee-drinking, skinny-jean-wearing hipsters in big cities. Our extensive examination of hipsters (n=1) confirms this hypothesis and places the epicenter of this plague somewhere in the Greater Boston area. But you can probably spell it however you'd like.

Happy 4th of July everyone!
[1] No offense intended. Verily, some of the FloatingSheep collective members are British and have yet to make the move to the promised land of 'Merica/'Murica.
[2] That would be us.
[3] "It is said that God is always on the side of the big battalions." -Voltaire