Almost immediately after Keith Lamont Scott was shot and killed in September of 2016, people went to social media to express anger, frustration, and distrust toward police.
Now, more than six months later, UNC-Charlotte has analyzed the meaning and effectiveness of more than a million tweets about the shooting and uprising. Researchers found activists and police shared missed opportunities to spread their message effectively.
The case made national headlines as part of the movement attached to Black Lives Matter and the killings of black men by police officers. Protests erupted, which shut down traffic in uptown for several nights, and at points turned violent.
Much of the narrative was shared through social media, some correct and some incorrect. Twitter became the platform for activists to organize, and for CMPD to notify the public of progress in the investigation.
“The Keith Lamont Scott shooting and ensuing Charlotte protest was a thorny issue happening in our backyards,” said geographer Jean-Claude Thill, Knight Distinguished Professor and director of Project Mosaic. “We wanted to conduct a deep dive into the social media data to help illuminate this case, especially since we have powerful data resources here for conducting the research.”
Joining Thill on the study were Tiffany Gallicano, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, and Ryan Wesslen, a doctoral candidate in the College of Computing and Informatics.
Their researchers examined cluster tweets from three advocacy organizations: the ACLU, Color of Change, and MomsRising.
Cluster tweets contain pre-written Twitter content that users are invited to post to their own feeds as original posts. The researchers used a machine-learning algorithm for text data that detects clusters of words that co-occur to identify these tweets.
The researchers observed that the tweets sent during the protests of the Scott shooting followed what are called “power laws” in computational social sciences, where a small percentage of the people involved drive the majority of the information that is disseminated.
“In the context of the Charlotte protests, 86% of the 1.3 million tweets posted to the hashtag were retweets rather than original posts,” Gallicano said. “However, we found that only 15% of the cluster tweets were retweeted. We saw that these types of messages do not appear to have the characteristics that would make them go viral. All three activist organizations missed an opportunity for increased awareness because none of their original tweets or cluster tweets were tremendously popular. The local police also missed a key Twitter opportunity to clarify misinformation that was amplified on the #KeithLamontScott hashtag during the first day.”
The study found that specific, event-oriented hashtags like #keithlamontscott, #charlotteprotest and #keithscott were the most popular, compared to broad Black Lives Matter hashtags.
It’s all about leveraging what works to drive up the most online traffic.
For example, the ACLU has the largest number of followers and more retweets, but MomsRising, which has significantly fewer followers, had almost as many retweets as the ACLU because many of its followers are more influential, said researchers.
Newly formed activists groups like Charlotte Uprising were not part of the research but were closely followed on social media during the unrest. Organizer Ashley Williams said the CLT Uprising handle was created immediately after the shooting to help mobilize protests and community reaction.
Officer Brently Vinson was never criminally charged or disciplined by CMPD concerning his actions, based on evidence and an extensive investigation said Chief Kerr Putney and Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray.