The Digital Flames of Ferguson

I wrote a recent post , articulating the fragmentation around media coverage in Ferguson and the impact of social media in spreading news about events occurring in Ferguson, eventually gaining national attention.

Using Twitter trending topics data, I show how the country’s attention gradually turned to the events transpiring in Ferguson, what were the driving factors and what it tells us about certain latent kinetics of the Social Web. The data indicates there is specific evidence of persistent attention in certain cities and an ensuing social contagion effect, that possibly swung national attention to Ferguson.

Here are some highlights from the post:

  • Understanding attention in Twittersphere and trending topics:

Imagine a city’s attention like a moving carousel and an impending trend is someone trying to get aboard. The more the volatility, the faster the carousel is spinning. If you are an impending trend, it is much easier to jump into a slowly spinning (less volatile) merry-go-round of attention and stick to it, than it is to get on and tag along on a carousel which is spinning very fast (more volatile).

  • How the attention signal varied in different cities:

The more Ferguson-related trends occur in the Trending Topic List of the location, the higher will be the amplitude of the signal. 

The signal was highest in St. Louis, the epicenter of the news.

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  • Contagion effects due to persistent attention and tipping points

Geographical information diffusion on Twitter is driven by the social interconnection structure among users in various cities and the sensitivity of a city’s tweeting population to new topics. Complex contagion is the study of social networks as conduits for ‘infectious’ idea/topic transmission.The simplest way to study contagious information spread is to examine when the various cities got infected with a Ferguson-related trend.

The data shows that on Aug. 10th, Ferguson-related trends were observed in four cities, namely the epicenter St. Louis itself, MiamiBoston and New York. The time between subsequent infections in every case was more than 3 hours.

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Past midnight on Aug. 11th, Ferguson-related trends had persisted in New York for about 15 hours. Then something interesting happens. The trend first appears in Washington DC. It trends in Washington D.C for about 70 minutes, before erupting into national trend — infecting 12 cities in the next 3 hours! This is a remarkable escalation in dispersion, given Ferguson-related topics trended in only 4 cities in the previous 53.4 hours. Following the topic’s persistence in New York and inception at Washington DC , 62% of the remaining cities get infected in the next 5 hours.

Such points in a social phenomenon’s space-time, like the one observed in Washington DC just after midnight, are called ‘tipping point’ or ‘critical mass point’. At the tipping point, a huge fraction of the cities adopt a previously rare trending topic over a drastically short period of time.

What the study tells us

The elementary reason why such social contagions and tipping points are decisive in information dissemination is that it draws national attention to a trending topic quickly, and in many cases, can be the difference between the news going national or not. A possible hypothesis of why this phenomenon emerges in the Ferguson scenario is that several journalists/media are positioned in New York and the city might be a critical node en-route to a national trend. Sustained attention in New York (~ 15 hours) could be a key factor in making this “trend” tip.

Read the entire post here 

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