Graduate students study effects of #BlackLivesMatter

(Credit: Megan Zendek/Fourth Estate)

A group of Mason graduate students studying communication recently sent out a survey to discover what motivates Twitter users to adopt the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.

Bridget Bush, a first year graduate student in communication, said the group was inspired to do the study because of how popular the hashtag has become.

“Hashtags are often very trendy for a short period of time, but #BlackLivesMatter is still a hashtag I personally see on my Twitter feed multiple times a day, even years after the movement began. For something to stand the test of time in that way, it must be very important to members of our society, and our goal in this study is to dig deeper,” Bush said.

The group is comprised of Bush and students Tyler Watkins, Sidra Sajid and Landry Ayres along with faculty advisor Emily Vraga, who teaches both graduate and undergraduate courses in the Department of Communication.

The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was created in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin, according to USA Today.

The hashtag’s longevity makes it a target for the study.

“We want to find out what motivates Twitter users to adopt this hashtag into their discourse, effectively branding themselves as online activists in the process, at least for the amount of time their tweet continues to circulate,” Bush stated.

Social media can be very powerful in transforming politics, explained Vraga, who added that the hashtag has raised awareness of issues the faced by many African Americans and has generated conversations about what needs to be done to address those issues.

“Social media may not always allow ‘ordinary people’ to shape politics, but #BlackLivesMatter is an example where a lot of voices coming together for a single purpose is impacting politics in a meaningful way,” Vraga said via email. She described part of the appeal of #BlackLivesMatter as a way to discuss many different issues by packaging them within a “single, memorable statement.”

The prominence of the hashtag has also made it a major topic in recent presidential debates and campaigns.

“It has entered our political discourse – the presidential candidates for both parties have had to answer questions about #BlackLivesMatter, and I doubt the issue would be receiving so much attention without its prominence on social media,” Vraga said.

Sajid said she believes social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, are powerful tools that allow activists to disseminate their messages and influence others.

“I contribute the success of BLM to their utilization and understanding of such tools, and I think they [those who use the hashtag] are garnering in the new age of social activism. The idea that a single hashtag can unify millions of stories and experiences on an audience-centric platform allows more people to participate, even passively,” Sajid said.

The survey asks responders if they have ever posted with the hashtag and asks about their attitudes and actions when they encounter the hashtag on social media. It also asks, “How much has your knowledge changed since you saw or used the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and other related hashtags?”

In addition, the survey asks responders general questions about their age, political affiliations and how often they view news and from what sources.

Sajid said she and her fellow researchers predict diverse responses, believing “some individuals avoid conflict related to political content, whereas others actively seek political content in order to participate in discourse, increase awareness or have their opinions heard.”

The survey is open to anyone, although Bush said the majority of the respondents are Mason students. The survey will close this week so that the group can begin analyzing the data before the semester ends.

The next step is face-to-face interviews. Bush said she and her team will most likely limit the number of interviews to 10, but students who volunteer will be randomly selected to participate.

According to Sajid, the face-to-face interviews will aim to determine why people make the decision to either participate in or avoid these discussions and if they believe that the world of social media is the correct space to discuss these topics.

“I believe the best way to begin discourse is to make people uncomfortable. Race has been and always will be a politically charged issue — unless we collectively agree to make ourselves uncomfortable and talk about it honestly, and that’s what I think this movement is doing. I think Americans can no longer avoid the subject of race because of the way these problems have culminated in our society,” Sajid said.

Currently the survey is only focused on the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, but at the end of the survey, responders are asked to include any other political hashtags that they see or use alongside #BlackLivesMatter.

“We will analyze the data we collect from those responses, and maybe our findings will guide us toward developing future studies of this kind,” Bush said.

As of press time, 91 students have participated in the survey.

Correction: This article originally omitted Landry Ayres from the list of graduate students conducting the study. The current article was changed to include his name.