Black Lives Matter discourse on US social media during COVID: polarised positions enacted in a new event

by   Gillian Bolsover, et al.

Black Lives Matter has been a major force for social change in the US since 2014, with social media playing a core role in the development and proliferation of the movement. The largest protests in US history occurred in late May and early June 2020, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. This incident reignited widespread support for the BLM movement. The protests were notable not only for their size but also that they occurred at a time the US was still struggling to control the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 20,000 new cases per day. With protest conditions and police crowd control tactics exacerbating disease spread and with COVID disproportionately affecting minority populations, it was hypothesised that participation in and support for the protests would involve a balancing act between the risks of systemic racism and of disease spread. However, social media data suggest that this was not the case, with discussion of the BLM movement replacing discussion of COVID on US social media. Neither supporters or opposers of the BLM movement or protest action mentioned COVID as a factor. Framings of the movement by BLM supporters largely replicated those of earlier studies, with new frames emerging surrounding the opposition the movement has received from racism, police militarisation and President Donald Trump. Discourse evidenced worrying levels of polarisation, hate, incivility and conspiracy content and bore many similarities to previously studied COVID discourse. This suggests that George Floyd's death, as yet another example of an African American man killed by US police, was largely seen through established, polarised identity positions that made reactions to the incident and resulting protest largely a foregone conclusion, established and articulated without reference to the ongoing pandemic.


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