Pew Research Center has a fascinating new analysis looking at the role of social media in political and social activism. The research, published on Wednesday, is tied to the fifth anniversary of the emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, and looks both at how use of that phrase and social media in general have shaped the national conversation.
Among the latter findings, Pew determined that while 65 percent of Americans think that it’s very or somewhat fair to say that social media helps to give a voice to underrepresented groups — 77 percent say that it’s at least somewhat fair to say that social media also distracts people from issues that are truly important. Another 71 percent say it’s at least somewhat fair to describe social media as making people think they’re making a difference when they really aren’t.
That’s an interesting, though not unexpected, finding — one that stands in contrast to the national conversation to some extent. During the 2016 campaign, there was a deliberate focus particularly among supporters of President Trump to win the cultural battle on social media, in part by using captioned images referred to as memes. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones declared in an interview with The Post that there were “meme wars” going on in the United States. Vice’s Motherboard blog reported on the alt-right’s meme war against the mainstream media. Social media is seen, in other words, as part of a political effort by some on the right — whether it actually makes a difference.
It’s worth considering one bit of Pew’s data in that light. In one graphic, the researchers compared six different political or social hashtags that had been used since the advent of #BlackLivesMatter.
They were kind enough to provide The Post with the specific data underlying that graphic, allowing us to compare the hashtags more directly.
No hashtag was used on a specific day more than #LoveWins, used in June 2015 after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationally. The second-biggest spike came with #JeSuisCharlie, a response to the massacre at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January that same year. The peak for #BlackLivesMatter, interestingly, didn’t follow a high-profile shooting by a police officer; instead, it followed the mass shooting of police officers in Dallas in 2016.
The peak for #MAGA came on Election Day that year. The peak for the anti-Trump hashtag #Resist came not on the day of Trump’s inauguration but during the height of the protests over Trump’s initial travel ban.
Notice on that graph, though, the staying power of the red, #MAGA line.
Trump himself first used the “MAGA” shorthand for “Make America Great Again” in late 2015. He didn’t use the hashtag until March 2016, in a retweet of a supporter.
At that point, the hashtag began to take off. From that point on, the only time #BlackLivesMatter consistently saw more tweets in a given day than #MAGA was during the two weeks following the Dallas shooting.
#MAGA had taken over — and its use has only grown.
By contrast, #Resist spiked early in Trump’s administration and has generally faded.
According to Pew’s analysis, the hashtags #BlueLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter never really caught on. This is likely to a large extent because of the sense of political opposition to #BlackLivesMatter that they represented was captured more comprehensively by the more-successful #MAGA.
There was one three-day period when #AllLivesMatter tweets outnumbered #BlackLivesMatter — Jan. 28 to 30, 2017, at the height of the protests over Trump’s first travel ban.