The Role of Social Media in Political Protests


A Q&A with a UCIPT Postdoctoral Researcher

What does social media tell you about the state of race relations on UCLA’s campus right now?

Many of the race relation debates that we see in real life are also taking place on social media. For example, recent police shootings in Minnesota and Dallas have ignited a firestorm on social media debating about police violence and race relations (e.g. #BLM). There are some tweets related to race relations with #UCLA and #BLM hashtags on Twitter. However, we would need to do a detailed content analysis in order to better understand race relations on the UCLA campus. I encourage you to check out this clip by PBS that highlights the important role that social media plays in our society today.

What can law enforcement do to better engage with minority groups on social media at UCLA?

I think law enforcement will need to use multiple social media platforms (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat) to engage with various population groups in their local communities. There are differences in people’s preferences for specific social media sites. For example, according to a Pew research report, Instagram is more popular among Latinos while Pinterest is more popular among whites. There are six recommendations for engaging with the public using social media put forward at a recent International Association of Chiefs of Police event in Kansas City:

  1. Be Real: Don’t make citizens feel like they’re talking to a “brand.” Let your voice be personal. Look for moments when you’ve let your guard down and capture real day-in-the-life moments.
  2. Be Relevant: Take advantage of a big national or local event.
  3. Be Timely: Post and respond at the speed of social, particularly when managing real-time developments.
  4. Be Engaging: Respond promptly to inquiries and tips.
  5. Be Proactive: During a crisis or a high-profile event, media will look anywhere they can for information. This is important to prevent from misinformation getting out online.
  6. Be Inclusive: Don’t limit your social media presence to your official agency account. Get your officers involved. An easy way to do this is with specific campaigns, such as NYPD’s “Tweet Along Tuesdays” or #NYPDBluegoesPink campaign to raise breast cancer awareness.

You can read the full story here.

What are protestors and activists at UCLA doing to organize themselves on social media? 

Protestors and activists usually organize themselves using specific hashtags or group webpages on social media websites. You can read about the recent protests that took place on the UCLA campus here. In the past few years, there have been several research papers published on understanding how social media can be used to organize protests in real life. Social media has usually been used to spread the message of protestors and coordinate the logistic of a protest. If you are interested in this topic, I encourage you to read this paper, “Anatomy of Protest in the Digital Era: A Network Analysis of Twitter and Occupy Wall Street.

What predictions about violent interactions between police and civilians in 2016 can you make based on what you see online?

Based on the tragic shootings that we have seen this year (e.g., Minnesota and Texas police shootings), I think we will most likely see more protests related to this issue. I think it will be challenging to predict the next protest based on social media data. Nevertheless, it may be possible. In a paper published in the Journal of Communication, researchers reported that monitoring Twitter and Facebook posts could forecast the next day’s protest activity, with Twitter playing a “pivotal” role in local coordination of logistics. However, the authors concluded that success in forecasting the scale of a protest using social media varies according to the type of event. You can read the full research paper here.

What predictions about violent interactions between protestors and other protestors in 2016 can you make based on what you see online?

This is a very interesting research question. I haven’t come across any research papers in this area. Maybe we can look at the content of the posts and figure out whether the protestors on both sides are planning to carry out any violent acts. I think this will be an interesting area of future research.

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