Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Self-segregation on social networks and the implications for the Ferguson, MO story

Michael Brown was fatally shot by police officer Darren Wilson on Saturday August 9, 2014. After his body lay in the hot street for four hours, Ferguson residents took to the streets to protest his killing. Brown’s death, the ensuing protest and the militarized police response opened a debate about race, justice and policing in America that continues today.

I heard about Michael Brown’s death for the first time on the evening of the 9th, through Twitter. Sarah Kendzior, a St. Louis-based journalist, was retweeting accounts of the protest, and other Twitter friends who write about racial justice issues, including Sherrilyn Ifill, the director of NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, were discussing the implications of Brown’s killing and the community and police response. I wrote a quick blog post, noting how little mainstream media response there had been at that point, and how much of the coverage had focused on the anger of the crowd, which one outlet termed “a mob”. At that early point, there was not a dedicated Wikipedia article focused on Brown’s death, nor had major national newspapers, like the New York Times, written about Brown. For many people outside of the reach of local St. Louis media, Twitter was the medium that introduced people to the city of Ferguson.

The Pew Research Center confirms this picture. In a thorough analysis of early media coverage of the events in Ferguson, Paul Hitlin and Nancy Vogt of Pew note that cable news didn’t report the story until Monday the 11th, two days after the shooting. Cable news attention peaked on Thursday, August 14, after Ferguson police arrested two reporters and President Obama interrupted his vacation to report on the situation. Twitter attention peaked at the same time, with 3.6 million Ferguson-related tweets on the 14th, but it’s worth noting that Twitter showed a steady and growing interest in the topic from Saturday the 9th onward.

This pattern of attention to Michael Brown’s killing contrasts sharply with early attention to the killing of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman on February 26, 2012. My students Erhardt Graeff, Matt Stempeck and I studied media coverage of the Martin killing using our Media Cloud tools and found that they key factor in expanding the conversation about Martin’s death beyond Central Florida was a careful PR campaign orchestrated by Benjamin Crump, an attorney retained by Martin’s parents. These PR efforts led to national television coverage of the story, which in turn led to a surge of interest on Twitter and in other participatory media.

In the case of Michael Brown, over 140,000 Twitter posts mentioned Ferguson on August 9th, the day of the shooting. Twitter led other media in 2014, while broadcast media led in 2012. When Crump announced he would be representing the family of Michael Brown on August 11, two days after the shooting, there was no need for a PR campaign, as the story of Brown’s death was already gaining traction in the media.

Pew’s analysis of Michael Brown versus Trayvon Martin shows that attention to events in Ferguson built more quickly than attention to events in Stanford, FL. There are several reasons for this. The police response to protests added a dimension to the Ferguson story that was not present in discussions of Trayvon Martin – many of the tweets on August 14 focused on the arrest of working journalists and the use of military equipment by Ferguson police. (When Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson took over control of law enforcement response in Ferguson on August 14, ordering officers to remove riot gear, attention on Twitter dropped sharply, suggesting some of the attention was on policing tactics.)

Twitter’s reach has grown since 2012, and the power of “black twitter”, which Soraya Nadia McDonald describes as both “cultural force” and social network, to challenge racist narratives has grown. Outrage on Twitter over a book deal for a juror who acquitted George Zimmerman led to the deal being withdrawn. Noting the power of outraged channeled through a hashtag, some African American Twitter users began posting contrasting photos of themselves under the tag #iftheygunnedmedown, suggesting that media were emphasizing the narrative of Michael Brown as “thug”, by using a photo in which Brown is displaying a peace sign (which many have read as a gang sign), rather than other photos in which Brown looks young and entirely unthreatening. The hashtag allowed Twitter users to participate in the dialog about Ferguson in cases where they had nothing to share about the situation on the ground by participating in a conversation about larger issues of structural racism in American media.

While events in Ferguson received widespread attention on Twitter, some observers saw very different behavior on their Facebook feeds.

John McDermott, writing in Digiday, offered this elegant formulation: “Facebook is for Ice Buckets, Twitter is for Ferguson”. Using data from SimpleReach, McDermott suggests that there were roughly eight times as many stories about events in Ferguson posted to Facebook as stories about the ALS Ice Bucket challenge, but that the stories received roughly the same exposure on Facebook (approximately 3.5 million Facebook “referrals” – appearances on a Facebook user’s screen – for each story between August 7-20th.) In the same time period, Crimson Hexagon calculated that there were roughly 1.5 times as many tweets about Ferguson as about the Ice Bucket Challenge.

The near-equal attention to Ferguson and the Ice Bucket Challenge that SimpleReach’s numbers suggest hardly seems like the substance of a controversy about algorithmic censorship, but it is worth noting that vastly more stories about Ferguson were posted to Facebook than stories about the Ice Bucket Challenge. The average story about the Ice Bucket Challenge was much more heavily promoted by Facebook’s algorithms (a factor of 8x) than the average story about Ferguson. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekçi suggests that this disparity may have been more significant early in the Ferguson story, which made the disparity between Facebook and Twitter more dramatic.

Tufekci goes on to observe that while Twitter (at present) is a “neutral” provider, simply delivering you tweets from the accounts you’ve chosen to follow, Facebook algorithmically “curates” your feed, offering you a selection of content that it believes you will find most interesting. She points out that this is a serious danger to democratic discourse. Facebook could censor our information flows and it would be difficult for us to determine that such censorship was taking place. The algorithms Facebook uses are opaque, which means conversations about how the algorithm work sound a bit like speculation about divine will. Tufecki suggests that Facebook may have altered their algorithm overnight to give Ferguson stories more prominence, which may be true but is impossible to verify. Others have speculated that Facebook tunes its algorithm to favor “happy news” and discourage serious news. Again, this is possible – and could even reflect lessons learned from Facebook’s mood manipulation experiments – but unverifiable.

Here are some of the things we do know about Facebook, which may explain why news appears differently on different social media platforms.

It’s hard to search Facebook. When news breaks, Twitter users enter search terms and hashtags and receive an updated stream of tweets on the topic in question. On August 9th, I was able to follow reports from Ferguson and quickly choose Twitter users to follow who appeared to be at or near the scene. On Facebook, searching for “Ferguson” gives you the names of many people named Ferguson who Facebook thinks you might know. (You can, conveniently, choose to “Like” the city of Ferguson, which is probably pretty far from what most people searching for Ferguson want to do.)

Non-reciprocal following makes it easier to diversify who you follow on Twitter. If I see that St. Louis-based rapper Tef Poe is reporting on Twitter regarding Ferguson, I can follow him, and I will see any public tweets he makes in my timeline. On Facebook, I need the approval of someone to follow their personal feed – they need to confirm our friendship before I can read what they’re saying.

It’s typical on Twitter for people to start following accounts of people they don’t know personally, especially when those people are eyewitnesses to or well-informed commenters on an event. I followed a set of users in Egypt while the Tahrir protests were taking place and stopped following many afterwards – I’ve done the same with Ferguson. This is much more difficult to do on Facebook – the platform is designed to connect you with friends, not sources, and to maintain those friendships over time.

People have a relatively small number of Facebook friends – the median figure is 200 – and many white American Facebook users likely have few or no African-American Facebook friends. This isn’t a phenomenon specific to Facebook – it’s a broader reflection of American demographics and patterns of homophily, the tendency of “birds of a feather” to flock together. Robert Jones at the Public Religion Research Institute used data from the 2013 American Values Survey to estimate the racial composition of people’s social networks. He projects that the average white American has only one black friend, and that 75% of white Americans have entirely white social networks. (There’s an interesting debate about PRRI’s methodology, with Eugene Volokh arguing that it’s hard to estimate weak social ties by asking people about people they confide in.)

We can build on these numbers to speculate about what might be going on with Facebook and stories about Ferguson. Most people who follow Facebook believe that the company’s algorithm favors stories likely to be shared by a lot of people in your social network – Facebook favors viral cascades over surfacing novel content. If few users in your circle of friends are sharing stories about Ferguson – which is a distinct possibility if you are white and most of your friends are white – Facebook’s algorithm may see this as a story unlikely to “go viral” and tamp it down, rather than amplifying it, as it has with the ALS stories. On the other hand, if many of your friends are sharing the Ferguson story – likely if you have many African-American friends or if you follow racial justice issues – your corner of the Facebook network could be part of a viral cascade.

A new paper from Pew and Rutgers suggests another reason why Ferguson might have had difficulty spreading on Facebook. Keith Hampton and the other authors of the study found that people are acutely attuned to what conversations are happening on social networks and are unlikely to bring up topics perceived to be controversial. The users the authors surveyed were half as likely to bring up controversial topics on Facebook or Twitter as they were in face to face conversations. The exception was when they believed their friends on social networks agreed with their positions, in which case they were more likely to bring up the topic on social networks. In the case of Ferguson, this suggests that a Facebook user, unsure of whether her friends share her opinion that the police overreacted in Ferguson, might be more reluctant to post a Ferguson story on Facebook than she would be to bring up the situation in conversation. If there were a cascade of stories on Ferguson, she would have a social signal that the topic was acceptable and would be more likely to participate. On Twitter, where it’s not uncommon to follow dozens of people you don’t know well, it’s easier to interpret those social signals than on Facebook, where you are more likely to know an ethnically homogenous set of friends.

I’m far from immune to these echo chamber effects. One of my students surprised me with a link to a USA Today article reporting that more money had been raised to support Darren Wilson, the police officer accused of killing Brown than had been raised by Brown’s family. Few of my Facebook or Twitter friends were raising money for Officer Wilson, and so I was surprised to discover that a successful campaign was being held on his behalf. My ignorance of the campaign to support Wilson suggests that I have my own diversity issues in social media – if I want a more nuanced understanding of Americans’ reactions to Ferguson, I need to increase the ideological diversity of the people I follow online.


Special bonus: Jon Stewart takes the Ferguson challenge, which turns out to be utterly unlike the ALS Ice Bucket challenge.

2 Responses to “Self-segregation on social networks and the implications for the Ferguson, MO story”

  1. Linda M. says:

    I was just telling library colleages that Twitter has become my favorite source of prof. info. and news. It’s amazing how much is here that I didn’t realize until I made a serious effort to get into and use twitter. I”m still awkward with tweeting….but I feel much better informed than ever.

  2. Erik Ostrom says:

    Minor fact check: On Facebook, I just searched for Tef Poe, and his page has a prominent Follow button on it. Compared to Twitter, (a) Facebook got one-way following later, (b) the culture hasn’t really embraced it, and (c) the algorithm/my free time means I won’t see everything from Tef Poe anyway. But the actual act of non-reciprocal following is not that difficult.

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