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What makes a movement go viral? Social media, social justice coalesce under #JusticeforGeorgeFloyd

The study is among the first to measure the link between social media posts and participation in the second wave of #BlackLivesMatter protests after the death of George Floyd in 2020.

December 09, 2022


NEWS SUMMARY: After George Floyd was killed in 2020, Instagram proved to be instrumental for the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It gave rise to activists, independent journalists, entertainers and meme groups whose posts and engagement provided momentum for the social justice movement.

Contact: Nina Raffio, or 213.442.8464

A USC study of Instagram shows that a picture — and a video — are worth more than just a thousand words. They fuel a human rights movement.

The study, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, demonstrates how images and videos on social media amplify conversations around civil rights and shape large-scale movements like the Black Lives Matter marches and demonstrations that occurred after police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020.

“So much political communication research prior to this study focused on Twitter as a driving force for digital activism. When #BlackoutTuesday began trending on Instagram on June 2, 2020, however, our team realized that we may be witnessing a visual paradigm shift,” said Allissa Richardson, associate professor of journalism and author of Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones and the New Protest #Journalism.

In a computer analysis, researchers found that more than 1.1 million posts and 1.6 million photos on Instagram after the police killing mentioned #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd. The study of Instagram posts from May 28, 2020 through June 30, 2020, showed that the platform, designed to amplify popular posts, elevated the voices of independent journalists, celebrities, advocates and activists who were outraged by the killing recorded by a citizen witness, Darnella Frazier.

“We had seen in prior social movements, like Occupy Wall Street a decade ago, that social media can help with the framing of the core narratives of protest, and help coordinate collective action,” said Emilio Ferrara, a computer scientist at USC ISI and Annenberg. “But #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd brought the discussion even further to mainstream media attention.”

The research involved collaborators from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism with the USC Information Sciences Institute (ISI) at the Viterbi School of Engineering.

The truth reframed

The research team noted that the posts effectively reframed the situation as a social justice matter, instead of as a criminal one.

The study also noted that additional hashtags appeared and protests occurred throughout those weeks of June 2020 including a musician-led protest #BlackOutTuesday, as well as a second wave of #BlackLivesMatter protests. The first wave had taken place six years before Floyd’s death. Demonstrators then were demanding justice for Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

This is believed to be one of the first studies to quantify Instagram posts in relation to the second wave of #BlackLivesMatter movements across the country.

“Amid the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns, people wanted to see and share compelling images of solidarity, more than they ever had before. They wanted to be connected visually to each other in ways that Twitter did not seem to allow. When it came to the tragic nature of Mr. Floyd’s death, tweets seemed inadequate — they wanted to host live discussions, create pictorial carousels of information and broadcast their protests,” Richardson said.

“This study suggests there is something beautiful in human nature’s ability to come together, mourn, and coalesce around shared ideals, and social media can help bring that out,” Ferrara said. “It’s our responsibility as researchers to make sure we document these events, but also preserve the health and safety of these online shared spaces to prevent their abuse.”

Over the past two decades, social media has evolved to play a critical role in organizing social justice movements, the researchers said. Most research has focused on the influence of text-based platforms like Twitter, a platform that favors institutional opinion leaders, including elected officials, and well-known journalists.

The research team sought to fill gaps in the existing literature by studying the role of Instagram in mediating the Black Lives Matter movement. They found that the visual content platform was particularly effective in mobilizing coalitions around racial justice by allowing new opinion leaders to enter public discourse.

Instagram gives rise to new opinion leaders

Independent journalists, activists, entertainers, meme groups, and fashion magazines were among the many opinion leaders that emerged throughout the protests through visual communications that went viral. This stands in stark contrast with the text-based platforms like Twitter that allow opinion leaders with institutional power (i.e., politicians, traditional news media, police departments) to control the flow of information.

“The composition of the opinion leaders during the movement on Instagram is distinct from that on Twitter,” said Ho-Chun Herbert Chang, ISI doctoral student and corresponding author on the study.

“On Twitter, we are used to seeing commentary from politicians and traditional news media. Instead, we saw fashion magazines and citizen journalists generating coverage of the protests. What was surprising was the diversity of content consumption by individual users who commented and responded to sources one would assume to have different audiences.”

Findings show that opinion leaders behind #JusticeforGeorgeFloyd were adept at commanding the attention of pre-existing audiences and mobilizing them as constituents for coalitions.

Researchers explain that the new wave of opinion leaders helped reframe narratives by posting visuals that portray protests as memorials instead of riots, and protestors as poignant rather than deviant.

“This suggests that visual-based social media can potentially serve as platforms for grassroots social movements and political organizing, similar to the early days of Twitter. We are seeing how social media can merge audience streams, likely through its feed algorithms,” said Chang.

Research funding was provided by the Annenberg Fellowship.