How Twitter Reveals What Americans Think About Police


It’s been astonishing to watch how seemingly frivolous modern inventions help contribute to social justice. Camera phones capture authoritarian violence and force the topic of police brutality into our national conversations. Mobile apps uncover, document and disseminate issues of critical importance. Social media elevates the voices of marginalized people and has given rise to its own forms of activism. It also helps us take the country’s temperature on issues of the day.

Granted, it may not be the most scientific method. But Twitter mentions help provide some insight into what we’re talking about and how we’re discussing it. In recent years, tweets have been used to identify our country’s most homophobic hotspots, sexist towns and racist cities. Now, a new survey of more than a million tweets is being used to gauge how attitudes toward the police differ around the country based on what’s happening in the news.

The study, conducted by Protection 1, unveiled a few surprising and not-so-surprising facts about our thoughts on law enforcement. Predictably, tweets about police increase in number when national stories break around police brutality. Overwhelmingly—as in Ferguson, Missouri, when police officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown in August 2014—those tweets tend to express antipathy toward cops. When police wrongdoing isn’t making front pages around the country, Twitter mentions about cops dip. There’s also a correlation between where incidents of police brutality occur and the number of tweets that emerge from that area.

All of this seems fairly logical. Perhaps more interesting is how expressions of negativity or positivity toward police fall or rise depending on geographic location. Per the survey authors:

There’s definitely a geographic trend when it comes to tweets about police in America. The Mississippi Delta seems to radiate bad feelings in police-related tweets. Tweets from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas expressed some of the most negativity. The rest of the Deep South, Maryland, and West Virginia also held negative sentiments. Meanwhile, in the colder, less populous parts of the country, Twitter users seem to note positive feelings in their police-related tweets. Wyoming and North Dakota top the list.

The researchers don’t correlate these findings with, say, the proportion of the population in these areas that are black or people of color; how politically liberal or conservative the area is; history of race relations; or even general population stats, but I’d guess that would offer some background information on why the numbers shake out like they do. Same with this breakdown based on location:

We also looked at cities with at least 1,000 police-related tweets. Twitter users in Richmond had the most positive sentiment when they talked about law enforcement matters, while four Texas cities also made the top 10 in this category: McKinney, Plano, Lubbock, and College Station.

On the other end of the spectrum, we see a similar pattern we saw at the state level. The cities where police-related tweets are most negative are in the South: Irving, Texas; Montgomery, Alabama; Jackson, Mississippi; Fayetteville, North Carolina; and Memphis, Tennessee. Ferguson is also near the bottom with tweets from Chandler, Arizona, which express more negativity.

Man, what is going on in Chandler, Arizona? Because when negative attitudes toward police in your town run higher than those in Ferguson, it’s time to look into the problem.

Check out the figures—based on analysis of 1,295,071 tweets—in the infographics below. Researchers point out that negative cop-related tweets “could be skewed negatively toward either the police or the victim.” Just a thing to keep in mind.











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