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Social Media and the Visual Politics of Policing Communities of Color

Social Media and the Visual Politics of Policing Communities of Color

Since 2014, video footage of officer-involved shootings of Black Americans has sparked a global dialogue about race and policing. Social media commentary reveals that Americans are deeply divided on what the footage tells us about the need for comprehensive policing reform. The May 2020 footage of a white police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck until he died seemingly shifted public perceptions, forcing many to confront the realities of police brutality against people of color and accelerating demands for reform. Social media has been crucial both for disseminating information about police brutality and for shaping interpretation of visual evidence.

Twitter, as a virtual public commons that facilitates concise, real-time communication, helps its users understand and participate in discussion of trending topics. Viral content now has global public policy implications. Because the prospects for significant institutional change in policing depend on broad public support, understanding the evolution of public discourse is key to effective racial justice efforts. Twitter’s voluminous archive makes it possible to map change over time in societal attitudes.  

Our primary research question is, what do social media platforms such as Twitter tell us about the dynamics that have facilitated a global awakening on policing communities of color? More specifically, in Twitter discourse surrounding officer-involved shootings, what are the rhetorical shifts or narrativizing moves that have made the discounting of video footage less viable and have led to greater support for reform? 

Our initial analysis will focus on Twitter discourse surrounding the 2016 killing of Terence Crutcher by a white officer in Tulsa. The Crutcher shooting occurred near the end of the previous wave of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the surrounding discussion likely manifests the discursive maneuvers that paved the way for the widespread uptake of concern about George Floyd’s killing. By understanding how social media discourse has shifted public perceptions, we aim to assist change agents in using social media to transform discourse and, ultimately, policies, practices and institutions related to policing.