The Ferguson grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown sparked widespread protests, looting, and fire in the streets, as well as outpourings of grief and conflict on social media platforms like Twitter.
As statistician Emma Pierson reveals over at Quartz, data visualization offers a tool for better understanding who is taking part in these fraught online conversations and how they interact.
Pierson collected a sample of 200,000 Ferguson-related tweets to visualize how liberals and conservatives interacted–or didn’t–on Twitter after the grand jury announcement in Ferguson. She used the tweets to paint a stark portrait of the divide between the opposing sides of the race war surrounding Brown’s shooting.
In her infographic, which resembles two clusters of dots, one red and one blue, each dot signifies one of the most outspoken tweeters in the announcement’s aftermath. The blue group consists largely of self-described liberals, while the red group is made up primarily of self-described conservatives. “Two points are connected if one mentions the other,” Pierson writes in the original post on Quartz. “In essence, the image depicts the social network of who talks to whom.”
She also aggregated the most retweeted tweets by each group, seen below:
What Pierson’s analysis reveals is a (perhaps unsurprising) lack of dialogue between the two groups. It highlights the echo chamber effect commonly found on social media newsfeeds: users parroting the views expressed by those they agree with and follow, while largely ignoring any opposing commentary. In the rare instances that the red and blue groups did engage with one another, as Pierson writes, “it often wasn’t pretty.”
The infographic is nearly identical in its approach to Andy Baio’s recent visualization of the two sides of Gamergate, and essentially draws the same exact conclusion about how polarized groups interact with each other on the social media platform. Last month’s misogyny-filled battle over the future of video games and the role of women in gaming sparked thousands of tweets using the hashtag #gamergate, which Baio analyzed to visualize the lack of communication between the two sides of the ugly fight.
Neither infographic can reveal whether conversation on social media actually strengthens and exacerbates users’ existing biases and tendency towards groupthink, or whether it merely reflect them as they exist offline. But the visualizations might make you question the purpose of so-called social media dialogue when it more often resembles an echoing series of monologues.
Read Pierson’s full post on Quartz here.