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.

[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.

August 17, 2014

Mapping the #LouisvillePurge

The only way to introduce this post is to say that yes, a bunch of really naive and/or, in the case of the local television news media, willfully idiotic, people thought that there was going to be a 'purge' -- a 12 hour period where all crime is made legal -- in Louisville, Kentucky on the night of Friday, August 15th, 2014. Starting with a single tweet from a local high school student, things quickly grew out of control, with #LouisvillePurge becoming a trending topic nationally by the time things were all said and done. While the best tweets referencing the purge made light of the phenomena, there were many, many more expressing confusion, fear, bewilderment and a desire to save the poor souls who might have been convinced to participate in such an event. But for all the attention given to the role of social media in spreading the hysteria [1], there's been no attempt to look at the where some of these tweets were coming from, and how the news spread over space and time.

While the tweet that kicked the whole ordeal off was created at 8:32pm on Sunday, August 10th, the first geotagged tweet with the #LouisvillePurge hashtag didn't show up for another couple of days, at 11:33pm on Wednesday, August 13th. Beginning with that tweet, we collected all geotagged tweets with the hashtag through noon on Saturday, August 16th, at which point things were dying down.

The map below shows the overall distribution of these 4,351 geotagged tweets, aggregated to hexagonal cells across the continental United States. While Louisville and the surrounding areas clearly have the highest concentrations, the discussion of the Louisville Purge was truly trans-local, with less than 25% of the total number of geotagged tweets coming from the Louisville Metro area. Of areas further away from Louisville in absolute distance, Houston, Dallas and Los Angeles represent some of the highest concentrations of tweeting about the (non-)event.

All #LouisvillePurge Tweets thru August 16th at 12pm EDT

But perhaps more interesting than just the overall spatial distribution is how this distribution evolved over time, from the first geotagged tweet all the way through the cycle of hype and hysteria that led the Louisville Purge to be featured on any number of national news websites. In the series of maps below, we have divided all of the tweets in our dataset into a series of (more-or-less arbitrary) time frames that give a good idea of when and where the news spread to other parts of the country [2].

The lead up to the purge demonstrates a relatively localized phenomenon within Louisville, though it's interesting that there is some extra-local tweeting from the very beginning, with a very small number of tweets coming from outside the state in West Virginia, Kansas, Texas and Florida. There were only a total of 182 geotagged tweets referencing #LouisvillePurge in this 44-hour aggregate time span, with tweets originating in Metro Louisville representing 55%, 66% and 60% of the total number of tweets with the hashtag during the three periods, respectively. In other words, talk of the purge spread quite slowly over the course of the week.

Time #1: 42 tweets
From August 13th at 11:30pm to August 15th at 6am

Time #2: 36 tweets
From August 15th at 6am to 4pm

Time #3: 104 tweets
From August 15th at 4pm to 8pm 

The number of tweets with the hashtag exploded right around 8pm on Friday night, the 'official' start time of the purge. This four hour time period represents the peak of tweeting activity around #LouisvillePurge, attributed largely to the fact that this is when the event started to diffuse outward beyond the city's boundaries to places both near and far. One can see both a significant increase in the amount of tweets across Kentucky, as well as to far-off cities like Los Angeles, Milwaukee, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City. From 8pm to 12am, the 757 tweets from Metro Louisville represent only 30% of the 2,533 tweets across the country, further highlighting the spatial diffusion of information about, and interest in, the purge. In fact, this measure of locally-concentrated tweeting drops even lower to less than 10% from the hours of midnight to 6am (when most Louisvillians would be asleep), though it again rebounds a bit higher to 23% during our final time span of 6am to noon on Saturday the 16th, after the purge has 'officially' ended.

Time #4: 2,533 tweets
August 15th at 8pm to August 16th at 12am

Time #5: 1,420 tweets
From August 16th at 12am to 6am

Time #6: 216 tweets
From August 16th at 6am to 12pm

Like our earlier research on #LexingtonPoliceScanner in the wake of the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats basketball championship, we can clearly see an ebb and flow in the way the event originates in a fairly localized area before gaining a larger following and eventually slowing down and becoming more localized again as many users reflect upon the aftermath. But unlike the attention paid to the #LexingtonPoliceScanner in large cities around the country, and especially the South, the interest in the #LouisvillePurge tended to be somewhat more diffuse, without any single location outside of the city or state paying a disproportionate amount of attention to the events.

In the end, we're happy to report that all of the Floatingsheep emerged from the purge unscathed and thoroughly amused, and we hope the same can be said for all of you and your loved ones. And do remember, don't trust everything you read on Twitter [3, 4]!

[1] Again, it's probably worth noting -- somewhat ironically, I suppose -- that despite the rumor originating and being passed around via social media, it was the traditional local television news networks whose willingness to believe and highlight the rumor drove further attention to the situation, which was almost obviously a farce from the very beginning.
[2] You can also access an animated GIF version of this time series map here.
[3] Especially if you are supposed to be a "real journalist"!
[4] For that matter, don't trust everything you see on the television news, either!