August 18, 2014

Mapping Ferguson Tweets, or more maps that won't change your mind about racism in America

This post is the culmination of the Inaugural #IronWilson Map-a-Thon, held on Saturday, August 16th, and is the result of a collaboration between Matthew Wilson, Eric Huntley, Ryan Cooper and Taylor Shelton. 

A little over a week ago, the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, were disrupted by the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. While the details have been slow to emerge, the reaction to the killing of yet another unarmed young black man has been anything but -- whether in the form of street protests in Ferguson, or the online reaction to the news as seen on Twitter. The following graphic, produced by Twitter and published online by the Washington Post, demonstrates a typical representation of what we might call ‘#hashtag frenzy’, as people around the country take to Twitter to react to and comment upon the news. 


While certainly flashy and eye-catching, these so-called ‘animated ectoplasm maps’ tend to be short on meaningful insights. These visualizations show little more than population density in the US, and are remarkably similar from one trending topic on Twitter to the next. There is no attempt to normalize the data by population or overall levels of tweeting in a given place, thus obscuring both more detailed spatial patterns and broader social meanings that might be drawn out of such data. Still, maps such as this are useful in demonstrating the waxing and waning attention span toward issues of social importance, including the registering of yet another gun-related and police-initiated violent event, something that this blog post itself contributes to; therefore, in full admission of ‘yet another Twitter map of racial violence’...

We collected all geotagged tweets referencing a series of keywords -- 'Ferguson’, ‘handsup’, ‘mikebrown’, ‘dontshoot’ and ‘handsupdontshoot’ -- from Saturday, August 9th when the shooting occurred through the morning of Friday, August 15th, in an effort to provide a bit more resolution and, hopefully, insight into the ways and places people were tweeting about the protests. Starting with the first geotagged tweet referencing the shooting, we collected a total of 38,450 tweets. 'This tweet came from user Johnny__Tapia at 3:11pm Central Time on Saturday, saying “Ferguson police just shot a kid in the head in the middle of the street. 17 yrs old. Ain’t nobody saying what he did” [1].

In the several days following the shooting, news spread quickly over Twitter, with social media providing a key source of updates and information in lieu of any official reports or communication from the Ferguson Police Department. The map below, made by Eric Huntley, aggregates all the tweets in this dataset to hexagonal cells across the continental United States, and normalizes it relative to the overall amount of tweeting in that location at the same time. In other words it shows the relative focus of tweeting related to Michael Brown’s shooting (and the subsequent protests and police crackdown) compared to overall tweeting activity by location. In this map lighter shades indicate relatively more tweets about Ferguson than the national average.


The national and international media coverage of the story in Ferguson points toward the notion that this event transcends the local; there is something about it that speaks to people from any number of places and walks of life. For example, the aforementioned WaPo article ends with the relatively meaningless maxim, “People are watching from as far away as Fiji and Ghana. That's the world we live in now.” While discussions of increased police militarization and the persistent legacy of racism have certainly resonated strongly with a national audience, it is evident from our more-than-just-dots-on-a-map approach that the tweeting around this event is actually most prevalent in the general vicinity of where the shooting occurred: the St. Louis metropolitan area. The proportion of tweets on the topic is higher in and around St. Louis than anywhere else in the country, while other cities around the country have largely continued about their business, with lower levels of Ferguson-related tweeting relative to overall levels of Twitter activity [2]. While a few scattered and isolated areas throughout the country demonstrate a relatively high amount of tweeting about Ferguson -- mostly as a result low overall levels of tweeting -- the St. Louis region is really the only place that demonstrates a particularly concentrated and significant interest in the matter. In other words, "the world we live in now" is one in which spatial proximity and social connectedness remains incredibly important, even if people in Fiji and Ghana can follow along, too.

This lies in contrast to the aftermath of George Zimmerman receiving a ‘not guilty’ verdict last summer in his trial for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, which is arguably the best parallel in terms of the public outcry and attention to the current Ferguson situation. Following Zimmerman’s verdict, large portions of the American South demonstrated a greater likelihood to use the #JusticeForTrayvon hashtag than other parts of the country, which we interpreted as indicative of Twitter users making connections between the events in Sanford, Florida and the broader legacies of racialized violence throughout the American South. Whether the different geographies of Twitter's reactions to these events are the result of different temporal evolutions (the immediate aftermath of the shooting vs. the trial verdict a year and a half later) or in divergent experiences, or perceptions, of racism between the South and Midwest [3], or something else entirely, is left to some level of speculation.

Despite the overall concentration of tweets in the St. Louis region, it also important to recognize that spatial unevenness exists at multiple scales, with respect to practically any phenomena. Indeed, the ability to examine such phenomena at a variety of scales is one of the major advantages to aggregating these points -- or individual tweets in this case -- to a uniform grid of hexagonal cells, as opposed to the more conventional, and largely arbitrary, Census-defined areal units. In the GIF below, created by Matt Wilson, you can see the spatial distribution of raw (i.e., non-normalized) tweets -- using the same dataset -- in the St. Louis metro area over time, beginning on Saturday when the shooting occurred, through the end of Thursday, August 14th [4].  


Given our lack of first-hand knowledge of St. Louis and its environs, we’re hesitant to draw too many conclusions from this data, though we certainly welcome any potential explanations from our readers. Because each of these snapshots is classified in the same way, we can see the diffusion of the news and growth in interest over time, becoming much more pronounced beginning on Monday. Tuesday is interesting insofar as it seems to demonstrate a much stronger clustering around Ferguson itself (the cluster of three dark blue hexagons north of downtown St. Louis), with the rest of the city actually seeing a decrease in tweeting about the event. This interest, especially in downtown St. Louis, ramps back up on Wednesday and Thursday, around the time of growing protests and the increasingly violent response from the Ferguson Police.

Ultimately, despite the centrality of social media to the protests and our ability to come together and reflect on the social problems at the root of Michael Brown's shooting, these maps, and the kind of data used to create them, can’t tell us much about the deep-seated issues that have led to the killing of yet another unarmed young black man in our country [5]. And they almost certainly won't change anyone's mind about racism in America. They can, instead, help us to better understand how these events have been reflected on social media, and how even purportedly global news stories are always connected to particular places in specific ways.

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[1] It appears that this user has since deleted all of his tweets back to July 10.
[2] There is still a significant absolute amount of tweeting in these places, there just also happens to be a generally massive level of tweeting about other topics, as well.
[3] Of course, St. Louis, like pretty much everywhere in the United States, has it’s own important legacies of racism. For example, please see: Deep Tensions Rise to Surface After Ferguson ShootingThe Most Racist City In America: St. Louis?, and The Century-Old Urban Policy That Divides St. Louis.
[4] These maps also use a somewhat smaller sample of tweets that have only exact latitude and longitude coordinates, so as to avoid using those tweets tagged to place names, such as ‘St. Louis’, which might give the impression that there were large contingents of tweeters at the geographic center of the city.
[5] Though data about racial profiling, as Ryan Cooper analyzed for us here, can point towards some potential explanations.

6 comments:

  1. I really liked the post.

    Now. One particular problem is how is the data normalized. It is explained that the data is normalized "relative to the overall amount of tweeting in that location at the same time". But does not specify from where is that data about relative amount of tweeting is taken. I believe Twitter does not publish that information, and they likely dont want to.

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    1. Javier, thanks for the comment. Through our DOLLY system, we are able to collect all geotagged tweets globally, which we can then go back and query for tweets mentioning, for instance, the handful of keywords used in the analysis above. This system also allows us to create different baseline measures of tweeting against which we can compare our collection of event-specific tweeting... e.g., collecting not only all of the tweets mentioning "Ferguson" that are produced in St. Louis, but also all of the tweets, regardless of their content, that are produced in St. Louis at the same time, or over a comparable earlier time period. Hope that makes sense!

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  2. Ohh! Then what I want to know is more about that DOLLY system that let you get all the geotagged tweets globally! How many geotagged tweets you see per day coming globally?

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    1. Javier, you can find a bit more about DOLLY here: http://www.floatingsheep.org/p/dolly.html. The figure might be a bit outdated at this point, but what we have on that page is ~8 million geotagged tweets per day.

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  3. Thats really nice... If I could ask then what will be amazing is having a pre-created dataset of Twitter density over time and space. In order to be able to normalize data as you suggest. Unfortunately is not very common to have access to all geotagged tweets in the world all the time!

    You guys are lucky :) any way we can get access to DOLLY?

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    1. Unfortunately, Twitter is pretty restrictive about allowing for tools like DOLLY to be made more widely accessible... doing so would essentially violate the terms of service that allows us to have such access to the data in the first place. We've been exploring options on this front for some time now, but haven't been able to come up with a workable solution.

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