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November 26, 2020

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UNLV Twitter sleuth studies reactions to big news events

Movement Starting Research

Steve Marcus

Brookings Mountain West researcher Mary Blankenship works in an office in Greenspun Hall on UNLV campus Wednesday, July 15, 2020. Blankenship headed a project that studied millions of hashtags, tweets and emojis to make conclusions about how a movement starts.

Movement Starting Research

Researcher Mary Blankenship displays a word cloud graphic from hashtag usage at the Brookings Mountain West offices in Greenspun Hall on UNLV campus Wednesday, July 15, 2020. The word cloud graphic shows Clark County hashtag usage after the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas. Blankenship headed a project that studied millions of hashtags, tweets and emojis to make conclusions about how a movement starts. Launch slideshow »

When Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman went on CNN in April and called for the early reopening of casinos, offering the city as a coronavirus “control group” to see what would happen, Twitter exploded.

In a project led by UNLV student researcher Mary Blankenship, Brookings Mountain West analyzed thousands of tweets posted about Goodman’s interview, extracting hashtags and emoji reactions.

Twitter users, as dismayed as CNN host Anderson Cooper, peppered their messages with emojis such as eye rolls, a flushed face and the No. 1 most-used symbol: the classic facepalm.

“I feel silly sometimes talking about hashtags and emojis, but this is how people communicate in our day and age,” Blakenship said.

In less than a week, people from the U.S. and 32 other countries posted more than 320,000 tweets mentioning the key words “mayor,” “Goodman,” “Vegas,” “Nevada,” “LV,” and “NV,” the study found.

For the last year, Blankenship has been researching tweets and hashtags about high-profile events, from the Oct. 1, 2017, mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip to the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests.

After Floyd’s death during an arrest in Minnesota, Blankenship partnered with Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, to analyze 15 million tweets with the hashtag #protest.

Floyd’s death sparked a nationwide wave of Black Lives Mater demonstrations as the U.S. was simultaneously seeing higher coronavirus mortality rates among Black people, Reeves noted.

“These slower-moving, deeper inequalities that disfigure American society came together at the same moment, like an X-ray exposing the inequalities all at once,” he said.

By June 2, people had posted nearly 900,000 tweets containing the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. The United Kingdom and Canada had the greatest engagement outside of the U.S., but other top countries tweeting about the protests included Nigeria, Australia and France.

“Hopefully this engagement doesn’t dissipate and can actually transform into concrete policy actions locally and internationally,” Blankenship said.

Blankenship also researched tweets about the Oct. 1 shooting on the Strip that left 58 people dead and more than 800 injured after a gunman opened fire from a hotel tower onto a country music festival.

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, people posted numerous false and misleading tweets, Blankenship said.

Among the claims were the Islamic State was responsible for the shooting and the shooter was part of antifa, a political movement associated with militant opposition to fascism.

Hashtags associated with these false claims included #ISIS, #Muslims, #NotAllMuslims, #terrorists, #MAGA and #liberals.

“Misinformation has the greatest chance of becoming widespread when it contains content that exploits feelings of superiority, anger or fear against another group,” Blankenship wrote in a research paper.