Across the country and across the globe, a phrase boomeranged from the streets to social media and back again, over and over: Black Lives Matter.
For the 30 days since the police killing of George Floyd, the rallying cry had been mentioned more than 80 million times on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and blogs, according to data collected by the Social Media Analytics Center at the University of Connecticut. Mentions far eclipsed brands that typically dominate social media conversations, such as Nike and Starbucks. John Murphy, a University of Connecticut professor who heads the Social Media Analytics Center, tends to use these big brands as benchmarks to measure social media impact. This is unique, particularly for how long those three words have captivated the social media sphere, Murphy said.
Murphy has run social media analyses on brands, presidential elections, and global terrorism for years, and he rarely sees numbers like this. “Maybe on Election Day or after a natural disaster there will be a spike for 24 hours,” he said after reviewing the data crunched by Talkwalker, a social media listening tool. “This is consistent for weeks.” (Nike and Starbucks were among the many brands who posted about the movement to varying degrees of success and cringe.)
This movement hasn’t just dominated social media. The protests are the most searched in the U.S. in Google history, and they commanded an immense amount of in early June. YouTube saw spikes in viewership of Black Lives Matter related videos then as well.
Digging into the extent #BlackLivesMatter dominated social media conversations provides insight into the protests’ extensive influence. As much as news coverage drives social conversations, the opposite is true too.
“It’s really touched a nerve in humans around the world,” Murphy said, noting that emotion is key for long-lasting social impact. “We’re all on our phones and scrolling. What’s going to make us stop and type something?”
For activists, who have been doing this work for years, the question then becomes: What’s going to make people type something and then vote, or show up to protest, or sign a petition, or donate, or speak at a city council budget meeting?
“We hope that it’ll uplift the stories of those who’ve been killed by police, we hope it’ll pull people more deeply into the work, we hope that it’ll amplify the fact that when we fight, we win,” said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, a local chapter of the larger advocacy organization, when ruminating on the social media impact.
Coupled with that, she said, organizers are hoping to turn social media scrolling into tangible action. Black Lives Matter LA has organized protests against police brutality, yes, but it’s also organized calls into police commission Zoom meetings and a push to remove police from public schools.
“If we continue to give people tangible things, it funnels them into the work beyond the initial social media engagement,” said the Cal State Los Angeles professor of Pan-African studies.
After the movement began in 2013 following the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter activists were just learning to organize. They had successfully turned a hashtag into a movement (building on decades of activism before the advent of social media), but there was so much more to do. Seven years on — even when the cameras and the YouTube streamers went dark and interest started to wane in 2016 — organizers continued to build a sturdy net. They were ready to capture the new round of online energy and transform it into change, not just awareness.
While other phrases have popped up on social media over the 30 days ending June 25, none have had the same reach as #BlackLivesMatter, according to Talkwalker data. George Floyd’s name and the term protest pulled in about the same number of mentions: roughly 42 million. Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed by police the same month as Floyd, has been mentioned about 15 million times.
Demonstrators have been chanting “Say their names” during marches in an attempt to shine a spotlight on the long list of Black people killed at the hands of police, but Floyd’s name clearly has had more social media influence. His name also received more likes, comments, and shares than #BlackLivesMatter. People engaged with his name 1.1 billion times in the 30 days since his death, more than twice that of #BlackLivesMatter. Women mentioned or engaged with posts about Taylor more than men, with a 60-40 split. Meanwhile, Floyd’s name had an even split.
The Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes has been charged with 2nd degree murder. The Louisville cops who shot Taylor while she slept have not. Only one of three has been fired. All four involved in Floyd’s death have been terminated.
Comparably, looting was mentioned about 17 million times, Defund the Police about 4.4 million times, and anti-racist 1.4 million times. These keywords shot up like fireworks, though; their peaks coinciding with bursts of news hunger for a few days before tumbling down. Meanwhile, the #BlackLivesMatter and George Floyd spikes lasted for weeks.
“People cared about the George Floyd story more than anything,” Murphy said.
Social media hot spots
Social media interest in the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. seems to line up with where protests took place. A heat map showing where people tweeted #BlackLivesMatter and variations of the phrase looks similar to a pinpointing nationwide protests. There’s heavy activity throughout the Northeast, and mentions jumped in Houston, New Orleans, Orlando, Tampa, Chicago, and Los Angeles, as well. Talkwalker’s location data isn’t perfect. A chunk of data is dumped into an “other” category, possibly because of people switching off location services on their devices. Privacy advocates had been warning activists to turn off location tracking to avoid possible police surveillance.
In the same vein, location information wasn’t available for all the global Talkwalker data, but according to the data that could be tabulated, the United States, United Kingdom, Brazil, France, Canada, South Korea, Spain, Thailand, and Germany led interactions with #BlackLivesMatter.
Image: Talkwalker data provided by University of Connecticut’s Social media Analytics Center
Similar Instagram data wasn’t available through Talkwalker, but Instagram posts with #BlackLivesMatter had been liked over 338 million times on the platform and received more than 5 million comments, according to Shareablee data also provided by the University of Connecticut’s Social Media Analytics Center. The Black Lives Matter movement has brought politics to Instagram feeds once monopolized by sunsets, plants, babies, and influencer peddling. Some of the politicking on Instagram has indeed been performative, but the same can be said for other social media platforms.
The conversation has also generally moved beyond why Black lives should matter to why white people are uncomfortable with that statement. There’s greater attention to what it means to be racist, in all its nuanced forms, compared to when the hashtag first bloomed in 2013.
“By posting, sharing, forwarding, favoriting, liking, bookmarking, tweeting, and retweeting such statements, individuals across races engage in activist-oriented discourse online that centers Black lives as significant, while encouraging dissenters to evaluate their racist resistance to acknowledging that Black lives should and do matter,” Jenny Korn, research affiliate and founding coordinator of the Race+Tech+Media Working Group at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, said in an email.
How does today compare to Ferguson?
Murphy couldn’t pull data from seven years ago to compare the rise of #BlackLivesMatter on social media after Martin’s, Eric Garner’s and Michael Brown’s deaths. His software access just doesn’t reach back that far. But, according to the , between mid-July 2013, when it first appeared on Twitter, and March 2016, #BlackLivesMatter was mentioned approximately 11.8 million times. It hit a peak of under 200,000 daily mentions on Nov. 24, 2014, when a Missouri prosecutor announced that the police officer who fatally shot Brown would not be indicted.
Image: Pew research center
Between May 25, 2020 and June 25, 2020, the hashtag and similar phrases had over 80 million mentions. Keep in mind that is across Twitter, Facebook, and other sources while the Pew data is focused only on Twitter. Also, different software with varying ways of vacuuming up information culled the two sets of data, so it’s not an equal comparison. Despite all these caveats, there’s no denying the humongous growth.
While Martin and then Garner and then Brown introduced many to the Black Lives Matter movement, Floyd’s death and the following protests catapulted it to new heights. It took seven years — and more Black deaths — to get to this level of awareness and activists believe it’ll take even longer to truly turn social media ubiquity into real, lasting change.
“We are trying to figure out what institution building looks like, not just to make BLM sustainable for the next seven years — we’ll be seven years old this month — but how do we make BLM sustainable for 70 years,” Abdullah said. “What if we are successful in defunding the police? Then what’s the role of BLM in protecting Black rights?”
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Even as mentions of #BlackLivesMatter dip from the peak of early June, they are still higher than they were before Floyd’s death. Korn expects “online conversations related to race will continue to thrive, especially as we near elections in November.” She predicts discussions about racialized voting patterns and racial justice taking center stage in both progressive and conservative online circles.
But Black activists who spoke to the New York Times worry white people’s commitment to the cause will fade when protesting is no longer the cool thing to do. While the nationwide protests have been more diverse than the demonstrations in Ferguson, will the camaraderie last?
Abdullah likens it to having a baby. Sometimes there are people who want to hold the baby and then give it back to its parent when it needs a diaper change. Then there are people who love the baby so much, they become part of its extended family. And then there are those who never want to hold the baby again, but it still had an impact on them.
“There’s no way as we talk about these protests — we had 100,000 people out at the Hollywood protest — there’s no way we can get 100,000 people out every week. That’s not gonna happen. But we’ve had thousands of people out on the regular,” she said.
“There wont be a time when people unlearn what has been learned,” Abdullah said. “Regardless if they’re in the streets or not, that level of consciousness has been raised and can’t be unraised.”
Gigi Wong and Kristen Welling contributed to this report.