Shortly after 5 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty in the murder of George Floyd. Reaction to the historic verdict was as swift and massive as it was complex and varied.
Racial justice activists and the Black community responded energetically, calling the verdict a step forward for the Black Lives Matter movement. Activists in Minneapolis cheered in George Floyd Square, letting out a collective sigh of relief that was quickly followed by calls for new social justice legislation and more police accountability.
To understand how the country processed the conclusion of the trial, USA TODAY analyzed statements from Congress, social media posts from influential Twitter accounts, and data on traffic to news media websites around the country.
The results show strong polarization on the issue of police accountability and the Black Lives Matter movement. This USA TODAY analysis demonstrates the diametrical ways Americans process visceral issues connected to social justice and policing.
Words from key Twitter users
The analysis started with a sample of highly followed Twitter accounts and their tweets and retweets. A team that included Brooke Foucault Welles, a professor of communication studies and network science at Northeastern University, previously selected the panel and identified the political affinities of these influencers based on voter registration data for their followers.
The panel numbered 250 users when it was created, but 30 accounts are idle or have since been suspended or terminated. The analysis accounted for a slight partisan imbalance in accounts by focusing on rankings of words used rather than number of uses.
Separately, USA TODAY looked at tweets from a sampling of activists and thought leaders on topics of civil rights and police reform, some of whom also appeared on Welles’ list of liberal influencers.
“BLM,” “media,” and “Democrats” were among the terms that ranked near the top in usage by conservatives but not by liberals.
Influential left-leaning accounts and civil rights advocates both stood out for tweets with the word “family.” In addition, the words “policing,” “accountability” and “change” were in the top 50 used by both groups. None of these terms ranked high for conservatives.
Among civil rights voices, the words “community,” “hope” and “support” notably ranked in the top 50 for usage.
A breakdown of two-word phrases showed conservative commentators made frequent reference to U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, the California Democrat whose comments supporting a guilty verdict prompted Chauvin’s defense to call for a mistrial. Conservatives also used the term “fair trial,” mainly to say Chauvin didn’t get one.
Liberals and civil rights voices gave particular attention to Darnella Frazier, the teen whose video footage of Floyd’s death became essential evidence at trial.
Civil rights influencers focused highly on Elizabeth City, N.C., where Andrew Brown Jr., a Black man, was fatally shot by law enforcement the morning after the Chauvin verdict.
“Ma’Khia Bryant” was also a leading phrase for this group, referring to the Columbus, Ohio, teen fatally shot by police minutes before the Chauvin verdict was announced. However, adding in variations on the spelling of her name and references to Columbus, Bryant’s case was a leading topic among both liberals and conservatives as well.
Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all counts.
Maxine Waters and Joe Biden no doubt played part in the jury’s decision.
— Ryan Fournier (@RyanAFournier) April 20, 2021
Statements from Congress
Within hours of the verdict’s announcement, more members of Congress issued official press releases than after the major legal decisions in other high-profile killings of Black people of the past decade, according to a ProPublica database of press releases. As with previous killings, almost all press releases were issued by Democrats.
Statements from both Democrat and Republican members offered support for “George Floyd’s family” and used the phrase “justice was served,” but only Democrats used the phrases “racism” or “police accountability.”
Shortly after the verdict was announced Tuesday, the overall positivity of language on Twitter dropped precipitously. It wasn’t because users were reacting negatively to the news. The average sentiment score went sharply downward because the words “guilty,” “murder” and “death” became a bigger part of the overall discussion on Twitter, according to data collected by the University of Vermont’s Computational Story Lab.
“Twitter was anxious on Tuesday afternoon when the announcement was made that the verdict was in,” said Chris Danforth, co-director of the Computational Story Lab.
The strong negative signals of words like guilty and murder were offset by a more positive message conveyed through words like hope, he said. “The sentiment dip for Tuesday and the 5 p.m. Eastern hour would have been dramatically deeper if Chauvin was acquitted,” Danforth said.
In the 24 hours following the verdict, news articles about George Floyd and the Chauvin trial were read from coast to coast. But Minnesota and Washington, D.C., were especially tuned in, according to data on approximately 9 million visits to hundreds of news articles provided by web analytics company Parse.ly.
“That says to me that the attention being paid here is very much from the people who experienced this trauma very viscerally,” says Kelsey Arendt, Parse.ly’s data insights lead, who wasn’t surprised that the nation’s capital also experienced high traffic to Chauvin news articles. “We’re looking at the people who the trial affected and the people who can change the laws,” Arendt said.
The Columbus market in Ohio also saw high engagement, possibly because of the police shooting that occurred there at the time of the Chauvin verdict.
Separately, using data from social media analytics firm NewsWhip, USA TODAY examined how readers responded to the top 100 articles about Derek Chauvin and George Floyd in the hours before and after the verdict was announced. Conservative outlets like The Daily Wire and Fox News dominated the conversation, with CNN and NBC News trailing, judging by the number of reader “interactions” such as shares or comments.
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10:44 am UTC Apr. 27, 2021
10:44 am UTC Apr. 27, 2021