In May, when George Floyd, a Black man, was killed while in police custody, igniting protests across the country decrying police brutality against African Americans, the research team I lead at Cause and Social Influence was already tracking the response of young Americans to COVID-19. As spring turned into summer and the two issues merged into a nationwide movement centered around demands for racial justice, our researchers were able to observe in real time the forces that motivated individuals, nonprofits, companies, and allied causes to take action.
Indeed, it was an unprecedented opportunity for us to study how online and offline behavior feed off each other to create and drive a movement. And while we aren't claiming to show definitively that one kind of activity led to another, we were able to identify a number of patterns and connections among certain kinds of online and offline actions.
Looking more closely at the response to the virus and the protests sparked by George Floyd's death, we noticed some commonalities:
The power of corporate influence. Our research revealed that 80 percent of young Americans believe corporations can influence attitudes toward the virus through their actions*, while 75 percent believe they can have a "great deal" or "some" influence on mitigating racial inequality‡. As we were fielding our survey, for example, Nike's "Play for the World" campaign was encouraging Americans to stay indoors and social distance; by the time Nike ended the campaign, it had generated 732,000 likes on Instagram and a total of about 900,000 social media engagements (Instagram, Twitter).
Lack of trust. Our research revealed that, in June, nearly 50 percent of young Americans thought President Trump was addressing racial issues "not well at all," with only 12 percent of respondents overall (and 16 percent of white respondents) saying he was handling the issue "moderately well." The same month, messages out of the White House or from Trump related to racial inequality or the pandemic were followed by spikes in social media activity*‡. An interview the president gave to FOX News' Chris Wallace that zeroed in on the administration's response to COVID generated millions of tweets and retweets on Twitter. Tweets put out by the president calling an elderly protester "an antifa provocateur" generated a combined 531,000 responses; similarly, a Twitter announcement of a Trump campaign rally in Tulsa, the site of a notorious race riot in 1921, generated 3.6 million tweets.
Our analysis also revealed some differences in activism around the two issues:
Social media played a larger role as an information source for racial justice activists than as a source of information about COVID-19. According to our research, young people initially relied on local government (37 percent) and family members (30 percent) for information on COVID-19*, while 76 percent said they turned to social media "often" as a source for news and information related to racial equity‡. At about the same time, the first week of June, the hashtags #BLM and #BlackLivesMatter generated more than 1 million tweets, while across all social media platforms hundreds of thousands of individuals shared updates containing references to Black Americans who had died in police custody.
Young Americans are more likely to turn to celebrities and online influencers for information about racial equity than for information about COVID-19. Our research revealed that in the first month of the pandemic, 40 percent of young Americans said they took some kind of action related to the pandemic because of something a celebrity or online influencer said or did, while in the month following George Floyd's death, 52 percent of all respondents (and 58 percent of Black respondents) said they took action because of something a celebrity or online influencer said or did. In early June, a Black Lives Matter special featuring comedian Dave Chappelle garnered 22 million YouTube views. Later in June, #ObamaDayJune14 generated more than 500,000 tweets, while a tweet by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stating that "The United States of America should not have secret police" generated nearly 500,000 likes and was the #3 trending tweet that day.
Different immediate responses. Our research also found that, initially, young people were inclined to shop locally as the best way to help out with the pandemic, and that only 25 percent said they were sharing COVID-19 information via their social media channels*. In the week after George Floyd's death, however, the top actions taken by young people in response to his death were posting on social media and signing petitions,‡ including 2 million social engagements featuring a #BLM or #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and 1.6 million using the hashtag #BlackoutTuesday.
Our conclusion: Social media tends to bring together both like-minded people and people with polarizing views across all types of divides — including income level, geography, age, education, work experience, etc. — for "conversations" that unfold in real time. The impacts of the COVID pandemic and calls for racial justice will continue to overlap in the lead up to the election in November; what happens after that is anyone's guess. But by examining offline actions and online engagements and conversations, we can begin to understand the interplay of dramatic events and social movements in real time and how each contributes to, and reinforces, action to advance a cause.
To see all the research and sources referenced in this article, visit: causeandsocialinfluence.com/ActionsAndOnlineDiscourse.
Derrick Feldmann (@derrickfeldmann) is the founder of the Millennial Impact Project, lead researcher at Cause and Social Influence, and the author of the new book, The Corporate Social Mind. Read more by Derrick here.
* Influencing Young America to Act, Special COVID-19 Research Report - Spring 2020, causeandsocialinfluence.com/2020research.
‡ Influencing Young America to Act, Special Report - June 2020, causeandsocialinfluence.com/2020research-june.