January 09, 2015

Mapping the Twitter Reaction to the Charlie Hedbo Attack

Following the attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Twitter -- and those who make maps of it -- were all aflame with discussions, speculations and conclusions. In order to process the geographic extent of the reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, we collected approximately 73,000 geotagged tweets created in a roughly 36-hour period from January 7th to noon (EST) on January 8th, that contained either of the hashtags: #charliehebdo OR #jesuischarlie (English translation: 'I am Charlie').

We then aggregated these tweets to the country level and normalized these tweets by a random sample of tweets in each country during the same time period [1]. We excluded countries that did not meet a minimum threshold of activity (15 tweets) to exclude places with extremely low levels of engagement. The map below was created by Rich Donohue, a post-doc at the University of Kentucky Department of Geography, whose cartography will be showing up on the blog more in the near future. The interactive version of the map allows you to pan, zoom and select specific hashtags to reveal different patterns between the tweeting.

Normalized Distribution of Geotagged Tweets 
containing either #CharlieHebdo or #JeSuisCharlie
Click here for an interactive version of this map.

Those countries shaded in orange demonstrate a greater level of Charlie Hebdo-related tweeting than one would expect based on typical levels of tweeting [2], while those countries shaded in blue demonstrate a lower amount of tweeting than one might expect [3]. Countries shaded in grey failed to meet the minimum threshold of tweeting activity to be included, while the handful of countries in red -- France, Belgium and French Guyana -- have the highest relative number of Charlie Hebdo-related tweets.

As expected, the reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attack has mostly captured the public's attention in Europe, especially (and unsurprisingly) in France and Belgium, with a seeming distance decay effect as one moves away from Paris. But outside of Europe, one can see greater levels of tweeting about the attack in countries with historical -- often colonial -- ties to France, such as Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal and Canada, as well as French Guyana which has significantly more tweeting about the attacks than one would expect based on usual levels of tweeting [4]. Other countries, such as Australia, India and Pakistan, also demonstrate significant levels of tweeting about the attacks, but don't have the same kinds of historical connections to France that might explain such heightened awareness.

Countries with the Greatest Relative Number of Tweets 
containing either #CharlieHebdo or #JeSuisCharlie 
Note: A location quotient greater than 1 indicates a relatively higher higher level of tweets with hashtags relative to the normal amount of tweeting taking place. A location quotient less than 1 indicates a relatively lower higher level of tweets with hashtags relative to the normal amount of tweeting taking place. 

In addition, there are a number of noteworthy patterns that we wish to highlight although are not prepared to explain at this time.

While such patterns are fairly obvious and could easily be predicted, the data leave us with a number of lingering questions that we don't have ready answers for. For instance, why is there a greater level of attention to the attacks in India and Pakistan than in Turkey or Egypt, which are both nearer in absolute distance and, in some ways, social distance to the attacks in Paris? Why are Canadians more focused on the issue than people in the United States? Why are people in the United States roughly 15x more interested in the Charlie Hebdo attacks than in the attempted bombing of an NAACP branch in Colorado?

It's also interesting to explore the differences in how each hashtag is used, and how this effects the spatial distribution of the tweets. Is the use of #charliehebdo a simple indicator of attention to the event, while #jesuischarlie indicates solidarity with the magazine? For example, the UK has a relatively low amount of #charliehebdo tweeting (LQ = 0.84) but a much higher level of #jesuischarlie activity (LQ = 1.35). In contrast, other nearby countries such as Spain, Portugal, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia have relatively more #charliehebdo than #jesuischarlie activity perhaps connected to a more fraught relationship with local populations and the satire contained within Charlie Hebdo cartoons. To be clear, the causes behind the observed patterns require much more in depth work than we can provide here and now.

Moreover, as always it's important to think about what kinds of discussions aren't captured in this particular dataset, such as discussions of the attacks in Arabic-speaking countries such as Saudi Arabia or Egypt, which use entirely different alphabets than we used in our search. While we don't want to read too much into these differences without further research, these issues do represent potentially interesting differences in the use of social media, both across space and different social groups.

It is also useful to track the distribution of tweets over time, which began shortly before noon Paris time and peaked approximately ten hours later.

Number of Geotagged Tweets Overtime (in ten minute blocks)

While we have surely raised more questions than we have answered in this post, hopefully this early attempt at mapping the response to the attacks provides some further food for thought for those wishing to delve deep into understanding the nature of the attacks and the response to them via social media.

[1] We used the following formula (location quotient) to normalize the data:

(# of tweets with hashtags in country / # of total tweets in country)
(# of tweets with hashtags globally / # of total tweets globally)

[2] With a location quotient greater than 1.
[3] With a location quotient less than 1.
[4] There were a number of Francophone African countries that had high location quotients but were excluded from this map because they did not meet the threshold of 15 tweets. This includes Côte d'Ivoire, Gabon, Burundi, Benin, Togo and Congo.  Other countries with strong ties to France -- New Caledonia, Fiji, and Saint Martin -- exhibited similar patterns.


  1. Quick comment:
    India and Pakistan: fear of terror?

    Canadians: French Canada, for sure.

    US: here in Brazil too people gave more attention to the Paris attacks then to local attacks on press. I guess it’s safer, more attractive, to deal with stuff a bit far away. But I am asking myself the same. Here, politicians are horrified by the Paris attacks, but not so much with the murder of bloggers who might have questioned them.
    I was interested in the higher use of the tags in Pacific America. Are they more global? Or are there less users, and therefore a higher proportion of educated users compared to Brazil?

  2. Could you do the same review for the Australian siege that triggered the #illridewithyou hashtag? It would be interesting to see if that one had the same traction and dynamics.

  3. Well done...timely as usual! My instinctive comment on your results is that different proximities may explain the patterns: geographical (Denmark and Belgium); cultural (ex-colonies and French speaking countries); "interst" proximity for those countres that have recently experienced attacks (Canada and Australia) or live in an environment exposed to terrorist Attacks (India and Pakistan)...


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