This spring, as a Minneapolis jury found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd, many observers pointed out how rarely officers are held accountable for similar abuses.

That happened in part because, over the past few years, both Twitter users and the Black Lives Matter movement have been calling out police and vigilantes for injustices. From Chauvin’s conviction to the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, Twitter users have pressured U.S. political and legal systems to respond to African American deaths.

How has the Black Lives Matter movement used Twitter so successfully? By analyzing #BlackLivesMatter tweets, we found three main strategies: empowerment, mobilization and reputational damage, all as part of an effort that social scientists call “social accountability.”

How we did our research

Drawing on tweets collected by Tweet Binder between May 5 and May 29, 2020, we selected those that met several criteria: They mentioned one or more of the three killings of African Americans noted above; they included the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter or #BLM; and they received at least 100 likes. We used 100 likes as a cutoff to focus on tweets that receive significant engagement from others. This initial data set included 3,668 tweets.

For this analysis, we focused only on tweets sent during the four days from May 26 to May 29, 2020 — the days just after Floyd’s death. We randomly selected the first and last 50 tweets for each day, giving us a total of 400 tweets to analyze. We also examined all 69 of the relevant tweets sent from May 5 through May 8, 2020 and from May 12 through 15, 2020 — the four-day periods after Taylor and Arbery, respectively, were first mentioned on Twitter, although they died months earlier. Altogether, we analyzed 469 tweets.

We were looking to see if these tweets expressed any of the elements of what social scientists call “social accountability.” That’s when organizations or masses of people aim to expose government wrongdoing by drawing attention to pressing issues or demanding sanctions for the wrongdoer. Political scientists Enrique Peruzzotti and Catalina Smulovitz suggest that citizens’ collective actions are essential to draw attention to issues to achieve social or policy change.

We were looking to see whether the people using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter were using any of three key elements of social accountability as they worked to call out the harm done by public institutions and to bring attention to police misconduct.

Using content analysis, we examined tweets to see if they had used any three approaches that social scientists have tied to holding perpetrators of violence accountable: empowerment, social mobilization, and reputational damage. Content analysis is a research method for making inferences from data and provides a useful way for examining trends and patterns in the data.

We coded tweets for empowerment if they express feelings of being concerned or showing support to the Black Lives Matter community. We found “social mobilization” in tweets that asked people to take some form of action, such as signing a petition, retweeting a tweet, or protesting. Finally, we coded tweets as damaging reputations if they aimed to shame of either the individual or organization allegedly causing harm.

Did #BlackLivesMatter use any of these social accountability themes?

We found that the more popular #BlackLivesMatter tweets used one or more of these themes most of the time. For instance, 43 percent of the tweets offered some form of empowerment. For example, one user tweeted: “I pray to see the day when blk ppl can just be carefree without being fearful of their lives being taken from them or being wrongly accused #BlackLivesMatter.”

Similarly, 31 percent offered or invited others to mobilize, making a call for action. For instance, this user tweeted: “I refuse for the only image in my head of George Floyd to be that police officer on his neck. Flood social media with how he lived. Check out his drip. #rip #blacklivesmatter.”

A quarter of the tweets we coded focused on damaging one or more reputations. For instance, this user tweeted: “I just watched the @MinneapolisPD MURDER a man. YOUR POLICE OFFICER MURDERED A MAN & NO ONE STOPPED HIM. #BlackLivesMatter.”

Finally, many tweets transitioned through all three themes, as did this one: “[It] has been two months since the murder of #BreonnaTaylor in her own home by police. We will continue to put pressure on the Louisville prosecutor to hold the officers accountable. Sign this letter. #blacklivesmatter.” That one began by aiming to damage the Louisville police force’s reputation; worked to empower a community that cared about racial justice; and then called for action, all in one tweet.

With such themes in common use, Twitter has the potential to be an ideal platform for movements such as Black Lives Matter to collectively mobilize to bring attention to, call out and expose harm caused by public institutions — and thus holding powerful forces socially accountable for their actions.

Social accountability may make a difference

Although Twitter is not seen as a formal mechanism for holding public officials accountable, users have turned to it to call attention to public institutions causing harm.

Had it not been for Twitter, would the public have known about the deaths of Taylor or Arbery, deaths that did not get national media attention for months after they were killed? Black Lives Matter Twitter users were able to bring attention to these cases. Whether they succeeded in holding public institutions accountable may be open to discussion. But Floyd’s murderer, Chauvin, is behind bars; Arbery’s killers are on trial; and the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Louisville police.

Lorita Copeland Daniels (@danielslorita) is an adjunct professorial lecturer in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington.

Rosa Castillo Krewson (@krewsonrosa) is an adjunct assistant professor in the department of public management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an equity consultant.