Mass shootings: diametrically opposed social networks


Schoolchildren crowd into classrooms in Uvalde, Texas as their classmates and teachers are gunned down by a rogue gunman. A peaceful weekend afternoon at a grocery store in Buffalo, NY, interrupted by a white supremacist hosing down the aisles of elderly, mostly African-American shoppers with an AR-15-style rifle.

Just five months into the year, these attacks counted as the 198th and 214th mass shootings in the United States in 2022 alone – drawing increased traffic from social media users who have loudly expressed their frustrations over the current crisis of armed violence in the country.

Mary Blankenship — a Brookings Mountain West researcher at UNLV who studies the link between public policy and misinformation and misinformation on the internet — sifted through more than 1.3 million tweets to examine how emotions and reactions of Twitter users to the two incidents varied and were consistent based on political affiliation.

The verdict? Despite significant differences of opinion on the motivations and solutions to mass gun violence, right-wing supporters of gun rights and left-wing gun control supporters are beginning to converge in their belief that enough is enough and change is needed.

“Our analysis suggests that the emotional reactions to these horrific incidents of violence are not so far apart,” Blankenship and Brookings Institution co-author Carol Graham wrote.

“The current discourse is overwhelmed with cynicism and pain that seem to unearth all the associated injustices felt by users on the right and left. Without compromise on both sides, no consensus is possible,” they added. “We hope this analysis can provide an opening to a solution where none seemed to exist before.”

Take away food

  • Researchers scoured Twitter for tweets reacting to the Buffalo shooting from May 7-16 and Uvalde from May 17-31. Social media users were split into two groups – left-wing and pro-gun control or right-wing and pro-gun – based on self-reported data in their Twitter bios. Users who did not indicate their political affiliation were excluded from the analysis.
  • Tweets and visual cloud mapping of hashtags showed Republican users were more likely to focus on “whataboutism,” the alleged hypocrisy of not mentioning deadly crimes committed by non-white men and the places President Joe Biden did or did not visit after such offences. Meanwhile, Democrats were more likely to focus on victims, guns, white supremacism and what they see as the complacent nature of right-wing media.
  • Analysts have distilled user emotions from yellow face emojis. Both right- and left-wing users showed more anger and sadness over the Uvalde and Buffalo shootings than other Twitter users. However, conservative users were more likely to report feeling fear, often associated with posts linked to conspiracy theories about the motives for the shooting. The second most reported emotion was anger surrounding media coverage. Anger was the most prominent emotion expressed by those who identified as liberal, surrounding things like the motives reported by the shooters. For the Uvalde shooting, both sides expressed anger at police inaction and fear for schoolchildren.

Moreover, unlike the earlier mass shootings analyzed by the researchers, there was almost no mention of religion or God in the Buffalo or Uvalde cases – signaling to analysts that users on both the right and left focus less on the shock of such tragedies and more on the collective emotional trauma and concern for public safety.

“There is consistency across both groups that gun violence is a problem that needs to be addressed,” the authors wrote. “While the main stumbling block is Republicans’ unequivocal refusal to discuss gun control, that refusal will not change unless Democrats show a willingness to compromise on the scope of the restrictions and agree that there are millions of people in the United States who are horrified by the violence but are unwilling to give up their right to own guns.

Blankenship continues to study the matter and said she was appalled to see the same patterns emerging following the recent July 4 mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois.

“On social media, alongside the panic and grief came the same allegations of ‘whataboutism’ and wild speculation about the identity and political beliefs of the shooter,” Blankenship said. “These allegations are not new and often spread in high-profile cases, as our research dating back to the October 1 shootings on the Las Vegas Strip shows.”

What shall we do now?

“If this is anything like previous shootings,” she said, “online discourse will boil down to the same cynicism and accusations about the shooter’s motives and users of opposing opinions or tweets saying it can’t “never again happen”, until the next time when it does – with pain and cynicism digging deeper.

Posting details

“How Cynicism and Misinformation Add to the Emotional Costs of Gun Violence” was published by the Brookings Institution on June 15.

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