by Samuel Hughes
The impact of social media on today’s crisis response is a powerful tool, both positively and negatively it has a significant impact. It raises awareness, builds momentum, rallies/organises people and passes information at very short notice, but not without its challenges.
Monday 25th May 2020 is a date now enshrined in American history following the killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd and the events that pursued.
Floyd died at the hands of the police for allegedly using counterfeit money. He was arrested on the charge of “passing counterfeit currency” and forcibly removed from a vehicle. According to reports, in the period after being handcuffed, Floyd complained of feeling claustrophobic. It was suspected that he may have been under the influence of alcohol.
During the altercation, a crowd of onlookers had gathered. Whilst attempting to place Floyd into a police vehicle a struggle ensued, and Floyd fell face down to the ground in a state of distress. At this stage, bystander Darnella Frazier amongst others started recording the events on their phones. Whilst Floyd was restrained, video recordings showed Floyd face down with a police officer’s knee pressed on his neck, Floyd was recorded several times saying “I can’t breathe”. This restraint continued for about nine minutes whilst Floyd lay motionless and continued after emergency paramedics arrived to assist. Ms Frazier posted her video, not knowing the events that a press of a button would set in motion. Floyd died a short time later in hospital, whilst in police custody.
Within hours of Floyd’s death, Twitter witnessed a huge spike with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag being used 47.8 million times from the 26th of May to the 7th of June 20201. A trigger for the outrage and spike was the release of a statement that Floyd had died from a “medical incident”, a statement perhaps designed to distract from the police tactics during the event. Within minutes of the statement being released publicly an onlooker’s video was posted and shared widely on social media, this galvanised public outrage, mobilised people and fuelled a call for justice. Police immediately reissued a statement informing the public that other agencies were taking over the investigation, possibly to avoid polarized opinions and exacerbating the situation by shaping public opinion.
Within days protests and rallies were organised across America and spurred support in cities across the globe. Social media was being used as a platform to coordinate the protests and create a sense of solidarity, a call to action bringing people together who shared the same views about Floyd’s death. More than 2000 cities and towns in all 50 states of America saw demonstrations and over 200 American cities had curfews in place with the National Guard mobilised2. These protests were not all in support of Floyd’s death, there were protests and posts from white supremacy organisations and ANTIFA (anti-fascist movement in America) that had the potential to spread malicious information and incite violence or indeed as in ANTIFI’s case criticise the government handling from a socialist perspective3. Tech giants like IBM and Amazon took stances against police use of their facial recognition software placing a one-year moratorium on their facial recognition software, amiss concerns of targeting of individuals. U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that thugs were dishonouring the memory of George Floyd and gave a warning “, when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. Twitter stated the tweet violated its rules and glorified violence but determined it may be in the public interest for the tweet to remain accessible. Misinformation posted on Twitter and Facebook was circulating saying that George Floyd was not dead4.
Twitter was deemed by some as portraying protestors as conspiracy theorists, only out to incite violence. Instagram posts started appearing as people wanted to show in pictures what they were feeling rather than just words, demonstrating that a picture and a video are worth ‘more than just a thousand words.’ Visual communication went viral, posts reframed the situation as social justice rather than criminal.
The protests later opened the debate and awareness surrounding police brutality and racial injustice. In America, the George Floyd Law Enforcement Trust and Integrity Act5 and the Sewel Report of Race and Ethic Disparities6 in the UK news coverage was prevalent and saturated the media during the protests, riots and the trial. All major news outlets covered the event through their social media platforms allowing for the further global reach of what was being played out in the cities across America, each with its political twist of events.
26th May 2020
29th May 2020
Images courtesy of Google: Show the global interest in internet search activity in the days after George Floyd’s death7
Social media proved to be a fast and efficient way for official agencies to disseminate information and promote advocacy, an example was live stream body cams helping reduce confusion whilst trying to build trust in their response efforts. Many used social media for reach, to push information about curfews, identify looters as well as build rapport and improve public image, as with the Twitter @DallasPD “Blue for Justice March” posted on the 6th of June, where officers participated in a march for justice8. However, this wasn’t without issue, as the spread of false information and conspiracy theories grew on social media, over which the authorities had no control, this hindered effective communication with the public and lead to a degree of mistrust within certain geopolitical groups9. It aided the post-investigation due to the sheer amount of onlooker’s recordings from many angles of the event, which helped increase accountability of actions on the day, as well as the police officer’s body-cam recordings used as evidence. The mass collation of data produced by social media also made it challenging to identify pertinent from non-pertinent evidence.
Before the trial jury was formed, all their social media accounts were checked to determine if they had any basis for what had happened, and those showing any basis through posts written on platforms were rejected.
Ms Frazier herself was subjected to heavy criticism on social media from across the geopolitical spectrum, some accusing her of not doing enough to prevent Floyd’s death.
- Jason Cohen (July 2020) #Black Lives Matter Hashtag Averages 37 Million Tweets Per day During Unrest. https://www.pcmag.com/news/blacklivesmatter-hashtag-averages-37-million-tweets-per-day-during-unrest
- History.com Editors. (2020) George Floyd is killed by a police officer, igniting historic protests. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/george-floyd-killed-by-police-officer
- Mia Bloom. (2020) Far-right infiltrators and agitators in George Floyd protests: Indications of white supremacists. Former FBI agent and CNN commentator, Josh Campbell wrote, that Minnesota “authorities have been monitoring alleged criminals 1/5 online, including postings by suspected white supremacists trying to incite violence.” https://www.justsecurity.org/70497/far-right-infiltrators-and-agitators-in-george-floyd-protests-indicators-of-white-supremacists/
- Davey Alba. (2020) Misinformation About George Floyd Protests Surges on Social Media. Article posted in the NY Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/01/technology/george-floyd-misinformation-online.html
- George Floyd Law Enforcement Trust and Integrity Act. (2022, July 20). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Floyd_Law_Enforcement_Trust_and_Integrity_Act
- UK Government. (2021) Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/974507/20210331_-_CRED_Report_-_FINAL_-_Web_Accessible.pdf
- Brittany Levine Beckman. (2020) #Black Lives Matter saw tremendous growth on social media. Now what? https://mashable.com/article/black-lives-matter-george-floyd-social-media-data/
- Queenie Wong. (2020) Police use of social media is under a microscope amid protests. https://www.cnet.com/news/politics/police-use-of-social-media-is-under-a-microscope-amid-protests/
- Nina Raffio. (2022) What makes a movement go viral? Social media, social justice coalesce under #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd. https://news.usc.edu/204196/what-makes-a-movement-go-viral-social-media-social-justice-coalesce-under-justiceforgeorgefloyd/