BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Black Lives Matter protests not only brought public attention to incidents of police brutality, such as the killing of George Floyd in 2020, but they also have shifted public discourse and increased interest in anti-racist ideas, according to research led by Indiana University researchers.
Their paper, “Black Lives Matter protests shift public discourse,” shows that the protests have created sustained interest beyond the singular events – including broader issues such as systemic racism, redlining, criminal justice reform and white supremacy – and have had a lasting impact on the way people think and talk about racism.
“It’s significant because it means the protests, these small periods of energy and attention, have lasting impact in terms of what ordinary people are talking about in our daily lives,” said Zackary Dunivin, the lead author and a doctoral student in sociology and complex systems in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington. “That’s showing that the protests are changing the landscape of what is relevant in our minds.”
The paper was published March 3 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The other authors are Fabio Rojas, the Virginia L. Roberts Professor of Sociology at IU; Harry Yaojun Yan, a doctoral student in media arts and sciences in The Media School, and complex networks and systems in the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering at IU; and Jelani Ince, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Washington who earned a doctorate in sociology at IU.
Rojas and Ince previously collaborated on a paper, published in 2017, about how people use the Black Lives Matter hashtag to bring awareness to the movement, which started in 2013 after George Zimmermann was acquitted of killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Rojas has expanded on that work with a grant from IU’s Racial Justice Research Fund. The grant has allowed him write a book about Black Lives Matter, including the impact of BLM protests.
Rojas recruited Dunivin, Ince and Yan to examine social media searches on Google, Twitter and Wikipedia, plus national news mentions, to measure the interest in Black Lives Matter protests and what people were talking about. They examined 41 related terms, including “systemic racism” and “mass incarceration,” from 2014-2020.
Rojas said the viral spikes in “Black Lives Matter” searches was expected, but the researchers were surprised by the spillover effect to new ideas and sustained interest. For example, comparing tweets from August to December 2020 to the same time period in 2019, the mentions of “systemic racism” increased ninefold, “police brutality” quintupled and “redlining” doubled.
In 2020, the discussions went well beyond police shootings or police brutality and the victims, Dunivin said. People were talking about historical and structural conditions that created the current situations in which Black communities are policed.
“In 2020, George Floyd is killed and people are thinking about policies and practices that led to neighborhood segregation and the exclusion of Black families from the growth of the middle class from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. That’s really an astonishing connection,” Dunivin said. “One man is killed on video and people are connecting it to this 70-year-old history.”
Yan said the Black Lives Matter protests also have had an agenda-setting effect; public discourse now routinely involves terminology associated with and used by the Black Lives Matter movement. Dunivin compared agenda-setting to getting a political opponent to agree to your terms of the debate.
“They may say we disagree that these are problems, but you still got them to be talking about it,” Dunivin said. “If you can’t get anyone to talk about it, you’ll never get anyone to recognize that it’s a problem.”
While search terms don’t signify support, the researchers said they do indicate that people are trying to learn more.
“The way we talk about race in the country is being shifted because of the protests,” Rojas said. “There’s a new way to talk about race. That was exciting to find.”