Beyond the Hashtags: #Ferguson, #Blacklivesmatter, and the Online Struggle for Offline Justice

Center for Media & Social Impact, American University, Forthcoming

92 Pages Posted: 15 Mar 2016 Last revised: 19 Mar 2016

See all articles by Deen Freelon

Deen Freelon

American University

Charlton D. McIlwain

New York University (NYU)

Meredith Clark

University of North Texas

Date Written: February 29, 2016


In 2014, a dedicated activist movement — Black Lives Matter (BLM) — ignited an urgent national conversation about police killings of unarmed Black citizens. Online tools have been anecdotally credited as critical in this effort, but researchers are only beginning to evaluate this claim. This research report examines the movement’s uses of online media in 2014 and 2015. To do so, we analyze three types of data: 40.8 million tweets, over 100,000 web links, and 40 interviews of BLM activists and allies. Most of the report is devoted to detailing our findings, which include:

*Although the #Blacklivesmatter hashtag was created in July 2013, it was rarely used through the summer of 2014 and did not come to signify a movement until the months after the Ferguson protests.

*Social media posts by activists were essential in spreading Michael Brown’s story nationally.

* Protesters and their supporters were generally able to circulate their own narratives on Twitter without relying on mainstream news outlets.

* There are six major communities that consistently discussed police brutality on Twitter in 2014 and 2015: Black Lives Matter, Anonymous/Bipartisan Report, Black Entertainers, Conservatives, Mainstream News, and Young Black Twitter.

* The vast majority of the communities we observed supported justice for the victims and decisively denounced police brutality.

* Black youth discussed police brutality frequently on Twitter, but in ways that differed substantially from how activists discussed it.

* Evidence that activists succeeded in educating casual observers on Twitter came in two main forms: expressions of awe and disbelief at the violent police reactions to the Ferguson protests, and conservative admissions of police brutality in the Eric Garner and Walter Scott cases.

* The primary goals of social media use among our interviewees were education, amplification of marginalized voices, and structural police reform.

In our concluding section, we reflect on the practical importance and implications of our findings. We hope this report contributes to the specific conversation about how Black Lives Matter and related movements have used online tools as well as to broader conversations about the general capacity of such tools to facilitate social and political change.

Keywords: black lives matter, twitter, social movements, activism, network analysis, mixed methods

Suggested Citation

Freelon, Deen and McIlwain, Charlton D. and Clark, Meredith, Beyond the Hashtags: #Ferguson, #Blacklivesmatter, and the Online Struggle for Offline Justice (February 29, 2016). Center for Media & Social Impact, American University, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Deen Freelon (Contact Author)

American University ( email )

4400 Massachusetts Ave, NW
Washington, DC District of Columbia 20016
United States

Charlton D. McIlwain

New York University (NYU) ( email )

Bobst Library, E-resource Acquisitions
20 Cooper Square 3rd Floor
New York, NY 10003-711
United States

Meredith Clark

University of North Texas ( email )

1155 Union Circle #305340
Denton, TX 76203
United States

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