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.

1 comment:

  1. Visualizations are informative and beatiful, but the narrative in this article about some persistent racial inequality and references to irrelevant laws is embarrasing.