LSU SMAC Lab director discusses recent Baton Rouge crises in relation to social media

BATON ROUGE, LA- On Monday, Lance Porter used data from LSU Social Media Analysis and Creation Lab, known as the SMAC Lab, to conduct an interactive discussion, “A Summer in Crisis: Baton Rouge and Social Media”, regarding the effect of the turbulent events of the summer of 2016 on social media.

Porter, director of the SMAC lab, led one of the many events that comprised a two-day symposium: Moment or Movement: A National Dialogue on Identity, Empowerment, and Justice for All. This convention aimed to address the tensions and tragedies that took place both in Baton Rouge and across the nation in the summer of 2016.

On July 5, 2016, Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old African America was shot and killed by police officers in Baton Rouge, creating an uproar on social media. Aside from the shooting in Baton Rouge that further divided relations between police and citizens, Louisiana experienced a tragic flood. Thousands of businesses and homes were destroyed. Porter decided to examine the relationship between these devastating events and the use of social media.

Porter increases, “civil engagement by empowering citizens in the effect and response” to social media through the use of interactive software. Crimson Hexagon is a software that allows users to observe patterns of content in social media by using linguistics, gender and age demographics, and location to evaluate data related to media posts. Porter realized that the use of technological platforms in response to the shootings and flood were “deeply intertwined.” By using key terms and top hashtags, he saw which topics resinated with people, and on which emotional levels.

Crimson Hexagon allows the user to manipulate the dates and locations that they wish to examine. This provided Porter with timelines that showed a vast amount of media activity in Louisiana during the shootings, and less during the flood. During the shootings, posts were fixed in Louisiana, but led to nationwide discussion, while activity on media corresponding with the flood was only pronounced in the effected area.  Twitter and Tumblr posts were most prevalent and were the easiest to access due to the fact that most of them were public.

Porter used hashtags as a file system to conduct much of his research. Hashtags that were used extensively after the death of Sterling included #BatonRouge, #AltonSterling and #BlackLivesMatter. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was used between 8 and 9 million times. There was also an emergence of the hashtag #BlueLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter after images of the fatal shootings of multiple law enforcement officers in Baton Rouge surfaced. Despite the popular assumption that these hashtags were created in response to one another, data shows that there was very little cross conversation between the accounts that used these terms. Although about 67 percent of activity was considered neutral, there was a substantial amount of posts categorized as emotional: disgust, fear, sadness, anger, etc. After about 3 million mentions of Alton Sterling, a few days later, posts affiliated with him simmered down. However, dominant themes including challenging injustice, anti-media, racial blaming and empowerment prevailed.

Social media activity data concerning the flood portrayed how the public responded to a natural disaster in a less attentive manner than they did to violence. Although the flood proved to be tragic, the nation was not nearly as responsive as it was throughout the shootings. Hashtags including #LouisianaFlood, #LAflood and #BatonRouge were heavily circulated on social media by Louisiana Residents. Trending themes included public information and requests for help, but most evidently the lack of national coverage. Many Louisiana residents effected by the flood felt that the national media failed to address the damage sustained by communities. Porter explained that the public needed national media during such a catastrophe to set the agenda.

LSU’s SMAC lab will continue to analyze data related to media posts and their relations to significant events. Porter realizes the importance of media use and its roll as many peoples’ main outlet for information. “We are just scratching the surface,” he explains.


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