How Media Influences the Use of Violence in Protests: An Analysis of the Black Lives Matter and #StopTheSteal Movements

By Clay B. York
2022, Vol. 14 No. 06 | pg. 1/1

Abstract

Two of the most prevalent protest movements in recent history were the Black Lives Matter and the #StopTheSteal movements. While there are many differences between the two, one of the most prevalent is their use of violence. Whereas the BLM movement remained largely peaceful, the StS movement did not. Despite previous research indicating that several factors such as communal identities, state repression, and viewing nonviolent methods as ineffective cause protests to turn violent, the research conducted in this paper found that one other factor was more important than those discussed by previous researchers. That factor is the influence that both traditional and social media had on these movements. By analyzing a number of positive, negative, and neutral articles about both movements from both conservative and liberal news outlets that were released during their respective timelines, as well as social media trends of them both, this research came to the conclusion that different types of medias’ portrayal of a movement is just as impactful, if not more so, when it comes to determining if modern protests ultimately turn violent or remain peaceful.

Introduction

Over the course of the last year, the US has been a hotspot for protests organized by those from both the right and left of the political spectrum. These protests have occurred despite the coronavirus pandemic that has been causing sickness and taking lives all over the world. Of the many protests that have taken place over the last year, the most influential one from the left is likely the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement that was reignited over the Summer of 2020, following the death of George Floyd. On the other side of the spectrum, some of the right’s most influential protests relate to the #StoptheSteal (StS) movement that became more focused and widespread after claims from former President Trump, and some other prominent conservatives, that the 2020 US Presidential election was unfairly stolen from him by Joe Biden and the Democrats through the use of mail-in ballots. This movement would eventually culminate in the storming of the US Capitol building that occurred on January 6th, 2021. Despite both movements taking place in the same nation, within one year of each other, and during a global pandemic, they each ultimately had very different demographics, goals, and outcomes. However, one of the most striking differences is likely the way in which both movements used violence or force in an attempt to achieve their goals. While the BLM movement remained mostly peaceful, or at least if violence did break out it was on a smaller scale and most of the people involved in the movement were quick to condemn it, the Stop the Steal movement’s use of violence obviously escalated to the point that protestors stormed the US Capitol building which resulted in the deaths of five individuals and many more facing physical and psychological injuries of various natures, not to mention the untold amounts of property damage (Evelyn, 2021). This use of violence by the capitol rioters who were affiliated with StS goes against some pre-existing research about why peaceful protests turn violent. Conversely, the BLM movement staying largely peaceful, despite oftentimes facing what could be perceived as unjust repression from the police, also goes against some theories about what causes peaceful protests to become violent. While there are no doubt a multitude of reasons for these phenomena that affected both of these movements, one of the most important factors that had an impact on the ultimate direction of both movements is the way in which they utilized and were influenced by modern forms of media. That is why this research will focus on the ways in which both movements used social media to organize their protests and also how more traditional, news-based media reported on the issues that each movement was involved with in order to see how these forms of media influenced the ultimate direction of both of the movements, and the amount of violence that they used.

Thesis

When confronted with the question of why peaceful protests turn violent, it would appear that the situation is too complex to support a theory that would present only one reason as a blanket cause for why violence becomes the norm instead of peaceful acts throughout all of history. Furthermore, the reasons behind peaceful protests turning to violence are often different based not only on the location, but also the time periods of the movements. Specifically, one factor that seems to have greatly influenced the protests that have been taking place in the modern era is the evolution of media. That is part of the reason why I decided to look at both the BLM and StS protest movements; because modern media most certainly played a greater role in determining how these movements were organized and why violence was used in them in certain cases. That is why the ultimate goal of this research project is to determine what effects modern media outlets, including both social and traditional forms of media, had on the directions that each movement took and why the StS movement ultimately concluded in a violent clash at the capitol while the BLM movement remained relatively peaceful throughout its duration.

Some people may think that modern media doesn’t have much of an effect on whether or not a protest remains peaceful or becomes violent because there have been multiple examples of both of these cases occurring long before the advent of modern media. However, it is important to consider the influence that modern forms of media can have on the outcomes of protests because even though the act of protesting, using either violent or nonviolent tactics, has a great deal of historical precedence, media itself has only truly come to fruition in the past fifty years or so. Furthermore, the emerging prevalence of modern media has caused information and updates on public issues and events from all over the globe to be easily received almost as instantaneously as they occur, regardless of where one is in the world. The immediate and effortless nature by which information about global events is received has made it easier for people from around the world to develop their opinions on these events and then share them with the rest of the world if they so choose. This global connectedness caused by modern media will likely only continue to increase the awareness that people have of events, including protests like those affiliated with the BLM and StS movements, taking place all over the globe. People’s increased awareness of protests and other events and how they develop can make it easier for them to either support or condemn them, which can in turn affect the outcome of the protests themselves. Furthermore, many social media sites have made it easier than ever for protestors to organize and plan these events in addition to sharing their thoughts and feelings about the issues they are protesting against. Therefore, it's impossible to deny that this phenomena has affected the nature of protests in a historically unprecedented way and this research will eventually conclude that the BLM and StS protests were especially affected by these newer forms of media. This makes it very important to acknowledge and try to discover what sort of impacts modern media has had on how these protests were conducted, and whether or not they eventually resorted to violence.

Overall, the increasingly connected world that has been caused by modern media has made it easier for individuals to gain immediate information about popular current events including protests. This has in turn made it easier for them to form and share their opinion on these events, whether it be negative or positive, and for protestors themselves to organize such events. The opinions that people have on these events and the means that protestors use to organize them can affect the actions of the government as well as the protesters themselves. That is why I hypothesize that modern media can be seen as playing a key role in determining whether a peaceful political movement remains that way or ends up resorting to violence, and more specifically why the BLM protests remained peaceful while the StS protests turned violent. These are the primary beliefs that influenced the formation of this thesis.

Determining Violent and Nonviolent Methods

The research question that originally inspired this project was “what causes protests that are initially peaceful to become violent over time?” To provide a bit more detail, in regards to this question, it was decided that any protests in which the activists are actively and purposefully causing bodily harm to bystanders, members of the regime/organization that they are protesting against, and/or public enforcers whose duty it is to deal with the activists are to be considered violent. Furthermore, the protest will only be considered violent if the harm caused by a member of the movement, was done in an attempt to further the goals of said movement, and was authorized or at least later approved by the majority of the members of the movement and its leaders. Simply put, if the majority of the members of the original protests or resistance movements consciously decide to harm any individual who is not a member of their movement, regardless of how severe the injuries are, or property that is not owned by them then said movement will be considered to have become violent. Under these requirements, it becomes clear that the violent clash at the Capitol on January 6th between StS protestors and capitol police was an example of a violent protest, because the majority of protestors there did at least caused or allowed some property damage and many also attempted to fight the police, causing them physical harm. On the other hand, the BLM movement will not be considered to have been violent because when violence did occur it was mainly done by lone wolves and was almost always immediately condemned by other protestors and leaders of the organization. More details about why exactly the StS Capitol Riots were considered to be violent while the BLM protests were not will be given later in the paper.

Additionally, these requirements for determining if a protest is violent or not align with a briefing released by the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, titled “Facilitating Peaceful Protests.” This briefing attempts to define the difference between peaceful and violent protests and outline how the Academy believes protests of both of these natures should be handled by international organizations of all kinds, including governments, NGOs, etc, so that they are dealt with in a way that is both legal and humanitarian (Geneva Academy, n.d.). Specifically, it states that there should be “compelling or clear” evidence that a protest has an intent to use or incite violence for it to no longer be considered peaceful and that “Acts of violence by a small number of participants do not render a whole assembly violent” (Geneva Academy, n.d.). A protest is considered to be engaged in violence if they cause serious physical harm to any individual or any property without the consent of the owner. For this research, it does not matter if the protesters were not the first ones to instigate violence. So long as they engage in violent protest techniques as described, their protest will be considered to have been violent.

As mentioned previously, this paper will look into the BLM protests that occurred over the Summer of 2020 and the StS protests that occurred following the 2020 US Presidential election, including the January 6th Capitol Riots because they either meet these requirements for violent protests or do not. The influence that modern media had on the perception that the general public had of both movements will also be looked into in order to determine if the public’s perception of how much violence used was different depending on what types of media outlets they used and if this perception had any influence on either movement.

Answering the larger question of why peaceful protests turn violent has value for several reasons. Some of the reasons behind this question’s valuability include that answering it could help protesters and those being protested against determine what actions should be taken by themselves and each other in order to avoid potentially violent conflicts. Answering this question could also help determine if violent or peaceful protests are more likely to cause positive change. Answering it could help determine how long it normally takes for a peaceful protest to turn violent, if it ever does. And, finally, this research question could help determine what some of the factors are that cause peaceful protests to become violent so that all of those involved in protests could identify and make them less likely to appear. Those are just some of the potential valuable concepts that could be confirmed by answering the general question of why peaceful protests turn violent. However, analyzing the specific issue of what effects modern media had on the BLM and StS movements that I am looking into has unique value as well. Performing research into this specific phenomenon could help determine how people from different sides of the political spectrum are impacted by modern media. It could also help determine what role the media plays in general in influencing a movement to either turn violent or remain peaceful in the US.

Literature Review

When reviewing some of the already existing literature for this project, I came across many hypotheses that attempt to explain what causes some peaceful protests to turn violent while others never do. Some of these hypotheses are that protesters utilize violence because they perceive nonviolent methods to be ineffective, protesters utilize violence in response to state repression, and protesters are more likely to use violence once their grievances have been framed in terms of identity. These hypotheses are just some of the more promising ones of the many that exist that attempt to explain why peaceful protests become violent. These specific ones were chosen to be looked into in detail because they present some of the most sound arguments for the phenomenon being researched in this paper and because of how they relate to the BLM and StS movements.

The first hypothesis will be discussed in this paper is that protesters utilize violence in response to state repression. This hypothesis is explored in the article, “From Peaceful Protest to Guerrilla War: Micromobilization of the Provisional Irish Republican Army” by Robert W. White. This article argues that the reason for the increased amounts of political violence rather than peaceful protests employed by the IRA was the result of “state repression, not economic deprivation” (White, 1989). The author goes about proving his argument by interviewing several Irish citizens who were alive during the time period of the IRA in order to determine why they decided to join the IRA or not and why they chose to use violence as a means of achieving their desired political change, in this case a more independent Northern Ireland. While there were several interviewees, the author only goes into great detail about one of them because while most of those involved with the IRA desired anonymity, this specific interviewee’s affiliation with the IRA was already public knowledge because he had been caught and arrested. In this interview, the respondent discusses how he wasn’t radicalized overnight and didn’t decide to engage in political violence on a whim, but rather it was a long, drawn out process that required several steps. According to White (1989), the first step was viewing the state as illegitimate. The respondent is shown to support the viewpoint that the British government was illegitimate when he says, “the way I had been brought up to respect other people’s rights wasn’t being done by the state… they used to invade areas and they’d break down doors and they’d go into people’s houses and they’d beat them up. Once I saw that, then there was no problem with rioting” (White, 1989). It’s clear from this quote that the respondent believes that the government is disrespecting the rights of the citizens of Northern Ireland, but more importantly, the reason that he believes the state is illegitimate is because they are actively repressing members of his community that are supposed to be citizens of the state. This was one of the first steps that led towards him utilizing political violence.

The second step according to White (1989) is that the actors must “view peaceful protest in the face of repression as ineffective.” It was natural for the members of the IRA to view peaceful means as ineffective considering that the state was repressing those who engaged in violence and those who did not equally. Once again, this gives evidence towards the hypothesis that protesters are more likely to use violence in the face of state repression. The third step is that the actors must “consider the reactions to repression of people with whom they have close ties” (White, 1989). This obviously contributes to the hypothesis that protesters are more likely to engage in violence in response to state repression because if one’s family, friends, or other close relations are being negatively impacted by state repression, as the interviewee believed they were, then that individual will be more likely to engage in violent political movements in order to avenge or protect their loved ones. In these cases, an individual begins to think about using violence as a means to help their entire community rather than just themselves because they believe that the state repression has grown too far out of control.

The next hypothesis I’ll discuss is that movements defined by ethnic or tribal identities are more likely to shift towards violence. One of the sources that supports this hypothesis is Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction. This book goes into detail about what exactly makes a revolution a revolution, what sort of events can cause a revolution, and it also provides some examples of revolutions that have occurred throughout history, from ancient times all the way up to modern day. In addition to all of this data, the book also contains multiple examples of several different types of protests. One example that the book mentions of protests that went from peaceful to violent are the “revolutions in Libya and Syria…[that] began as democratizing revolutions but the tenacity of ethnic or tribal loyalties to the rulers led to civil war” (Goldstone, 2013). It is somewhat apparent from these revolutions that preconditioned loyalties can result in a peaceful revolution falling apart and becoming violent over time. While it is true that protest/movements are not the same things as revolutions, it is sometimes the case that protests can eventually cause a revolution to occur, so for that reason this book is still considered to be valuable towards this research.

Another source that supports this hypothesis is “From Peaceful Protest to Guerrilla War: Micromobilization of the Provisional Irish Republican Army,” which is an article by Robert W. White. As previously mentioned, this article argues that the reason for increasing amounts of political violence rather than peaceful protests employed by the IRA is the result of “state repression, not economic deprivation” (White, 1989). Even though the author claims that the main reason that the individuals interviewed joined the IRA was because of state repression, he also mentions several other factors that most of his interviewees had in common. One of these factors was the belief that “Injustice impinges on their national identity” (White, 1989). This correlates with the Libyan and Syrian revolutions brought up by the book, Revolutions: A Brief Introduction, that was previously mentioned. Considering that the activists in both of these political movements ended up resorting to violence despite their differences in goals, beliefs, location, and type of government, it becomes clear that when protesters believe that their movement is directly or indirectly linked to their national or cultural identity then they might be more likely to eventually engage in violent tactics.

This hypothesis is also supported by researchers Martijn van Zomeren, Tom Postmes, and Russell Spears in their article, “Toward an Integrative Social Identity Model of Collective Action: A Quantitative Research Synthesis of Three Socio-Psychological Perspectives.” In this article they describe their research into the issue of determining how key factors, namely “perceived injustice, perceived efficacy, and a sense of social identity,” can be used to determine how likely individuals are to engage in “collective action” (Postmes et al., 2008). The researchers used “Wright et al’s (1990)” definition of collective action which states that a “group member engages in collective action any time that he or she is acting as a representative of the group and where the action is directed at improving the conditions of the group as a whole” (as cited in Postmes et al., 2008). So, their definition of collective action did not explicitly exclude violent methods of protesting. Their research was performed by carefully selecting 182 samples of collective action from all over the world, and then having two independent coders analyze several thousand articles about each of the samples in order to determine what effect the three key factors, injustice, efficacy, and identity, had on these protest movements (Postmes et al., 2008). Through their research, they found that of the three factors, “politicized identity” and “affective injustice” had the most influence on whether or not an individual would engage in collective action, with samples whose protests involved these factors being more likely to engage in collective action than those without (Postmes et al., 2008). These results correlate with the hypotheses put forward by White and Goldstone in their respective works in that they all support the idea that individuals are more likely to engage in violent protest, and to an extent protests in general, when they believe a group that they identify strongly with is facing a large amount of injustice.

The next hypothesis to be discussed is that protesters use violence because they perceive nonviolent methods to be ineffective. Once again, the article “From Peaceful Protest to Guerrilla War: Micromobilization of the Provisional Irish Republican Army” also supports this hypothesis. In this article one of the former members of the IRA that was interviewed claims that he wasn’t radicalized overnight, but rather there were several steps that led to his radicalization and his perception that violence was an acceptable way to achieve political change. While there are three steps total, only step two relates to this hypothesis. The second step in radicalization, according to White, is that the actors must “view peaceful protest in the face of repression as ineffective” (White, 1989). This shows that the actors involved with the political movements are more likely to engage in acts of political violence if they view the alternative of peaceful demonstrations as ineffective and it’s possible that protesters will never resort to using violence as long as they view peaceful methods as effective.

However, there is some contrary evidence to this hypothesis. Namely, another source claims that nonviolent protests are actually more effective than violent ones which causes one to wonder why protesters would begin to use violent methods if nonviolent ones are more effective. “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict” is an article by Erica Chenoweth & Maria J. Stephan that was originally published in International Security, Volume 33, but was later turned into a full book written by the same authors as the original article. The article itself discusses the merits of nonviolent resistance and argues that nonviolent resistance is in fact more effective at acquiring wanted change from regimes than violent resistance is. In order to prove this claim, the authors analyzed over 100 cases of violent and nonviolent resistance that took place from 1900 to 2006 and then determined how effective they were at getting the regimes they were protesting against to comply with the changes that they desired. In addition to providing an overview of which of these violent and nonviolent cases were more effective as a whole, the article also deeply describes three specific examples of nonviolent and violent protests that took place in correlating areas and goes into detail in explaining why some of them were successful while others were not. It is clear that the goal of this article was not to determine what causes peaceful protests to become violent, but rather to merely examine and compare the effectiveness of the two over the last century. In their article, Chenoweth and Stephan conclude that nonviolent political movements from 1900 to 2006 were oftentimes more successful than their violent counterparts for several reasons. One of these reasons is that according to the article, “members of a regime- including civil servants, security forces, and members of the judiciary- are more likely to shift loyalty toward nonviolent opposition groups than toward violent opposition groups… [and] the international community is more likely to denounce and sanction states for repressing nonviolent campaigns than it is violent campaigns” (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2008). More specifically, these communities’ views of the activists were often directly influenced by the media outlets that were covering the movements. According to the article the “external costs of repressing nonviolent campaigns… can be [especially] high… when the repression is captured by the media” (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2008). However, if external media outlets do not cover the nonviolent movement, then it is unlikely that the ruling regime will change its ways because they are not receiving any condemnation or pressure from the global community. This could result in the protesters believing that they must resort to violence because they won’t receive outside support either way.

This article also mentions the “correspondence influence theory” which suggests that nonviolent campaigns are “more appealing to the mass public and more persuasive to regime supporters” because “a person makes judgement about how to respond to an adversary based on the adversary’s actions” (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2008). Overall, this article begs the question, why do nonviolent resistance movements turn violent at all if nonviolent movements are proven to be more likely to succeed? The answer to this is somewhat nuanced. One possible explanation is that even violent protests can be viewed favorably by the public if the actor that is being protested against is deemed to be corrupt. This explanation is explored by Emma F. Thomas and Winnifred R. Louis in their article “When Will Collective Action Be Effective? Violent and Non-Violent Protests Differentially Influence Perceptions of Legitimacy and Efficacy Among Sympathizers.” In this article, Thomas and Louis (2014) found that a “social context of corruption effectively undermined the efficacy and legitimacy of non-violent collective action, relative to support for violence, thereby promoting (indirectly) support for future extreme action.” So, if an authority is seen as corrupt or immoral then protestors responding to their actions in violent ways may be deemed more acceptable. This may in turn cause future protests from the same organization to utilize violence again. Another possible answer is that those involved in peaceful political movements that become violent often don’t know about research done into the subject, or if they do know they likely perceive their situation as unique and therefore believe that using violence is a rational choice and has a greater possibility of succeeding than continuing nonviolent efforts. This would contribute to the hypothesis that protesters use violence because they perceive nonviolent methods to be ineffective. In short, despite some preconceived notions that people may have about the effectiveness of violent vs. nonviolent protests, research indicates that it is actually still a fairly complicated issue.

Research Design

In order to research what influence modern media has had on protests, and whether or not it can contribute to how violent they become, I looked into two very recent case studies that took place in America over the course of the last year. As previously mentioned, these two cases are the resurgence of the BLM movement that began in the Summer of 2020, largely in response to the death of George Floyd, and the Stop the Steal movement that occurred in response to former President Trump’s, and others’, claims that the election was unfairly stolen from him by Joe Biden and the Democrats and which culminated in the January 6th storming of the US capitol building. These two protest movements were chosen because they both occurred in the same country, the US, within a year of each other. Additionally, both movements took place during the coronavirus pandemic and so this factor that could not be found in many other protests can be accounted for. However, there are also many differences between these two, including the demographics of those involved, political affiliations, goals, and outcomes to name a few. Despite these differences, what is ultimately important to look at for this research is how different media presences, such as different news organizations and social media websites influenced the organization and direction that both of these protests took. This research design began with the creation of two separate timelines of each movement. These timelines will be explained in greater detail shortly. After the timelines of each movement were determined, the next step was to analyze the influence that different types of media had on both movements.

In analyzing both the BLM and StS movements in order to determine how they each were influenced by modern media I elected to look at a variety of statistics covering social media posts made on several platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Reddit, and found some sources about the demographics of the political leanings of each sites’ users and if posts about both movements made on these websites were positive or negative. This was done in order to determine how the movements were organized and what those who were directly involved in said movements thought about the way things were going. These social media findings will be discussed more in depth later on. Additionally, various news articles and reports in general from major news outlets CNN and Fox were analyzed in order to determine if their coverage of each movement was primarily negative or positive and how this coverage may have affected those involved in the movements.

When deciding how to analyze news outlets in order to understand some of the media responses to these protests, CNN and Fox News were chosen to be looked at in detail. These two news outlets were chosen because they were the top two “leading US news networks” during Q4 of 2020 based on “primetime viewership numbers,” Fox News had roughly 3.78 million viewers and CNN had roughly 2.37 million viewers (Watson, 2021). In addition to this, they were both also among the top ten most popular US news websites of 2020, with Fox having 65 million unique monthly visitors and CNN having 95 million (Watson, 2020). Aside from the high number of viewers and unique website visitors that both news outlets received, these two were also chosen because Fox News is generally considered to provide a more conservative coverage of the news while CNN’s is often considered to be more liberal. This trend can be seen in how both conservative and liberal individuals view each network. According to the Pew Research Center, 67% of people who identified as left leaning or Democrats placed trust in CNN and conversely 65% of republicans or republican leaning people placed their trust in Fox News, these statistics were practically flipped when asked about which news outlets individuals distrust (Gramlich, 2020). It is beneficial to see how news outlets from both sides of the political spectrum responded to the BLM and StS protests in order to determine how great of a difference there was between the two outlets in terms of how positive or negative their coverage was. To begin, these two media outlet’s respective coverages of the BLM movement will be analyzed, followed by their coverage of the StS movement.

When performing research into each of these networks I was able to find 362 news reports of various natures released by CNN between the dates of May 26th and June 19th on their website that referenced the BLM movement and 57 reports referencing the StS movement from November 3rd to January 6th. Fox News had 274 reports referencing the BLM movement and 78 referencing the StS movement on their website that were released during the same respective time periods. However, when searching both CNN and Fox News using the term “Capitol Riots” 38 more reports from Fox and 11 more reports from CNN that were published on January 6th alone were found. These reports were included in this analysis because the riots themselves were perhaps the most important events of the StS movement and many referred to them with this specific name because they were so prominent and shocking. However, no articles published after January 6th were analyzed because the initial reactions that the media had to the riots were determined to be the most important to analyze.

After analyzing the reports from both of these networks they were categorized based on if the reports provided positive, negative, or neutral/informative coverage of the movement. A given report was determined to be positive if it offered coverage that spoke in favor of the BLM or StS movement and their respective goals, while a given report was considered to be negative if it spoke against them. Additionally, a report was considered positive if it was over a beneficial story about the movement, even if the author did not provide an expressed opinion themselves, and was considered to be negative if it covered a story that detracted from the movement. Reports were considered to be neutral or informative if they simply provided information about the protests or if both positive and negative coverage of the movement were provided in the same report.

Timeline of Black Lives Matter Movement

As mentioned previously, this paper will look into how both the BLM and StS movements were influenced by traditional and social media in order to determine why the BLM movement remained largely peaceful and the StS movement became violent. However, before going into more detail about this, it will first offer a brief timeline of both protest movements.

The most recent wave of BLM protests that will be analyzed in this paper began on May 26th when videos that were taken on the 25th of George Floyd, a 46 year old african american man, being killed in Minneapolis by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes straight were posted on various websites all over the internet. While it was the killing of George Floyd by police that caused the resurgence of protests, several unjustified killings of africans americans by police, such as Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Elijah McCain to name a few, were also eventually brought to light during the movement. These protests are still going on in some forms in the present, although they are admittedly not as prominent as they were during the Summer of 2020. That is why, for this research only some of the most important protests that occurred between May 26th and June 19th will be analyzed. These dates were chosen to be the boundaries for this research because May 26th was the day after Floyd’s death and featured the first protests in Minneapolis that specifically referenced his death and because June 19th, otherwise known as Juneteenth which is an informal holiday that recognizes the official end of slavery in the US in 1865, was one of the last times of the Summer that over 200 protests were held across the nation on the same day. Of the many protests that occurred over the course of this time period I will be looking in depth at some of the ones that were determined to be the most important. These include protests that took place in cities like Minneapolis, St. Louis, Chicago, and Washington, DC to name a few. Additionally, some of the news coverage and social media posts from this time period surrounding these specific protests as well as the movement in general will also be reviewed.

Given that Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, it should be no surprise that this city was a hotspot for some of the most important protests and demonstrations of the movement. The first protest to occur in Minneapolis, and the first of the new wave of BLM protests in general, occurred on May 26th, the day after Floyd’s death. While the protests were mostly peaceful during the day, a much smaller subset of the original group vandalized a police vehicle, damaged windows, and graffitied the precinct that the officers involved in Floyd’s death used to work at (Wagner, 2020). Upon reaching the precinct, civilians and police clashed when officers began firing rubber bullets and launching tear gas into the crowd, protesters then responded by throwing “rocks, water bottles and anything they could get their hands on towards the officers” (Wagner, 2020). Despite this, no one was seriously injured in the encounter and no serious property damage occurred. Furthermore, the original organizers of the protests condemned the violence and the majority of those who were in the initial march did not participate in it (Wagner, 2020). Therefore, although violence did occur, this protest did not make the BLM movement shift from peaceful to violent because only a minority of the original protesters involved became violent and they were condemned by the movement at large.

The protests that began on the 26th continued on for the next several days with increasingly more violence occurring until May 28th when Minnesota Governor Tim Waltz declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard, sending 500 soldiers to the Minneapolis area after a police precinct was burnt to the ground (Associated Press, 2020). Once again, however, leaders of the BLM movement disavowed the looting and burning, with Floyd’s own brother saying “If I’m not over here wilding out, if I’m not over here blowing up stuff, if I’m not over here messing up my community, then what are y’all doing? What are y’all doing?... Do this peacefully, please” (Taylor, 2021). In addition to this, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey declared on Twitter that “We are now confronting white supremacists, members of organized crime, out of state instigators, and possibly even foreign actors to destroy and destabilize our city and our region” (2020). This once again indicates that a great deal of those involved in the majority of the violence that took place in Minneapolis had little to no legitimate ties to the BLM movement.

St. Louis and Chicago are two more important locations for the BLM movement because they were some of the first places where people died as a result of the protests. On May 30th in St. Louis a protester was dragged and eventually killed by a FedEx truck after it tried to get through a barricade that was erected by protester on a downtown street (Chakraborty, 2020). In addition to this incident, 4 police officers were shot and sustained nonfatal wounds during protests that occurred on June 1st and one retired police captain was shot and killed one June 2nd while trying to prevent a pawn shop from being looted (Cullinane, 2020; Olmos, 2020). Once again, however, the majority of the BLM movement did not support this violence and Dorn’s own son even stated that this caused “negative light [to be] shown on a situation that really needs light to be brought to it” (KMOV4/CBS News, 2020). In Chicago, six individuals were shot that night, with one of them being fatally wounded, however, none of the people involved in the shootings were part of active protests at the time so it is most likely that these were cases of people taking advantage of the movement (Cauguiran et al., 2020). As a result, these incidents did not make the BLM shift to violence under the requirements that have been provided.

Some more important protests in the timeline of the recent BLM movement took place in Washington, DC, the nation’s capital. These protests were especially notable because of then President Trump’s response to them. On the night of May 29th former President Trump was reported to have taken shelter in a White House bunker in response to the protests, although he originally claimed on Twitter that he was only there for an “inspection” (CNN Newsource, 2020). It was also reported that “multiple Secret Service agents” sustained injuries after “protesters flung rocks, urine, and alcohol at them” among other objects (CNN Newsource, 2020). Protests continued over the next couple of days with minor property damage, vandalism, and some looting occurring alongside largely peaceful protests. On June 1st, former President Trump had US Park Police and the National Guard disperse a “generally peaceful crowd” using “riot-control tactics” that involved “tear gas” and “flash-bang explosives” in order to take a now infamous photo-op in front of St. John’s Church (Rogers, 2020). The next day as “many as 2,000 protesters” demonstrated in DC, the largest crowd to take place in the capitol since the new wave of protests began there (Chason et al., 2020). Unlike some previous protests in the city, however, these remained nonviolent throughout most of the day, with peaceful protesters yelling “Peaceful protest! Peaceful protest!” at potential agitators and chanting “Walk with us,” rather than looting, while marching through downtown well past 7pm when violence had most often been instigated in the past (Chason et al., 2020). The protests in the city remained peaceful for the next several days, with only one arrest occurring on June 6th in response to property damage (Small & Vitka, 2020). There were no more major acts of violence related to protests in the city until Juneteenth when protesters toppled and set fire to a statue of Confederate General Albert Pike in Judiciary Square (Hermann et al., 2020). This instance was one of the last notable occasions of violence within Washington, DC and in the nation as a whole that was associated with the BLM protests.

These are some of the most prominent events in cities where BLM protests occurred that took place from May 26th to June 19th. As one can see, most of the protests that have been covered featured some amount of violence in them, but there is also the trend that they became less violent as time went on, likely because the wound that George Floyd’s death left had some time to heal. The reason that I mostly focused on violent occasions above even though the overall movement was peaceful is because occasions where violence occurred alongside BLM protests received much more detailed media coverage than many other protests that were solely peaceful but occurred on smaller scales. As a result it was easier to find information about and analyze them in greater detail. However, according to the US Crisis Monitor, “nearly 95%” of the more than 10,600 BLM protests that took place between May 24th and August 22nd did not engage in any violent tactics (Jones & Kishi, 2020). Additionally, peaceful protests occurred in “over 2,400 distinct locations” while violent ones were limited to “fewer than 220 locations” (Jones & Kishi, 2020). The large number of peaceful protests that occured is why only a few of the most prominent ones that featured some violence were analyzed, but, as one can see, the BLM movement was overwhelmingly peaceful in nature. Furthermore, as is indicated from the specific examples provided above, when violence did occur it was almost always condemned by the majority of people involved in the movement, either during the event itself or after the fact. There were several more instances of violent and nonviolent BLM protests that could have been mentioned, but were not because the information above provides more than enough evidence to support the claim that the BLM movement was nonviolent overall and has remained that way for its duration.

Timeline of Stop the Steal Movement

Moving on, I will now focus on creating a timeline for the StS movement. For the timeline of this movement this paper will focus on the protests associated with the movement that took place from November 3rd, 2020, the day of the presidential election, to January 6th, 2021, the day that protesters associated with the movement stormed the US capitol building in Washington, DC. The #StopTheSteal was first used on election day early in the morning by Jack Posobiec, a far-right media personality, before all of the votes had been counted and even before the controversy surrounding delayed mail-in ballots began (Atlanta Council’s DFRLab, 2021). However, it is important to note that the hashtag had already begun to have been used months earlier by Posobiec and others, including Trump himself, who claimed that the election would be stolen from Trump as early as September 7th, 2020 (Atlanta Council’s DFRLab, 2021). Early in the morning on November 4th, Trump falsely claimed that he won the election and then called for the counting of votes to stop while once again claiming that voter fraud is occurring; these claims are echoed by some Republican congresspeople and conservative media commentators (Atlanta Council’s DFRLab, 2021). That night and the next day, many individuals all over the nation, namely in Arizona and Minnesota, gather outside polling places chanting “stop the count” and “stop the cheat,” among other phrases related to the movement, in an attempt to prevent what they believe to be a stolen election (Atlanta Council’s DFRLab, 2021). Many of the protesters outside of these polling places travelled from outside the states involved and featured armed individuals, far-right militias, and other militant groups, however, aside from minor aggregations most of these demonstrations remained peaceful (Geller & Sullivan, 2020: Atlanta Council’s DFRLab, 2021). In addition to this, many claimed that they showed up after being urged to by conservative political commentators on Twitter among other social media sites (Dwyer, 2020). On November 7th, the election is projected to be in favor of Biden by most major news outlets. More armed protests featuring more militant groups occurred across the nation that night.

One of the earliest pre-organized protests to occur following the election being called in Biden’s favor was the first “Million MAGA March” that took place in Washington, DC on November 14th. The protest featured thousands of Trump supporters decrying what they believe to have been a corrupt election. It remained peaceful throughout most of the day, although at least 20 arrests did occur for a variety of reasons, including assault, firearms violations, and assaulting a police officer (Boykin, 2020). Later that night, multiple brawls broke out between Trump supporters and counterprotesters that featured multiple injuries, fires, destruction of property, and at least one hospitalization. These brawls were later praised by Trump in a Tweet claiming that “Antifa SCUM ran for the hills” after his supporters “aggressively fought back” (as cited in Atlanta Council’s DFRLab, 2021).

Another one of the more important protests in the movement was the second Million MAGA March of December 12th that also took place in Washington, DC, once again featuring thousands of protesters. Although it is relatively peaceful during the day, it becomes even more violent than its predecessor that night. This time multiple Proud Boys, a far-right militant organization with racists beliefs, who were present within the protests initiated a brawl with counter protesters that resulted in multiple stabbings and dozens of arrests (Osborne, 2020). Later that night, Proud Boy members also vandalized several churches and lit fire to a BLM flag (Atlanta Council’s DFRLab, 2021).

The most prominent demonstration associated with the StS movement was no doubt the January 6th Capitol Riots. These riots are also what are often considered to be the tipping point that led to the StS movement being categorized as violent rather than peaceful. The main reason for this is that these riots were a clear demonstration of overt use of violence by the majority of individuals who showed up to this protest. Furthermore, there is some evidence that the riots and the violence they caused may have even been preplanned. The Capitol Riots of January 6th originally started out as peaceful with supporters of the StS movement gathering in the National Mall to hear a speech from Trump about the allegedly rigged election on the day that Congress would certify the results of said election in favor of Biden. In this speech Trump reportedly used violent imagery and asked the people gathered there to “walk down to the capitol” and “fight like Hell” because if they didn’ they wouldn’t “have a country anymore” (as cited in Associated Press, 2021). During and following the speech, protesters began to march down Pennsylvania Avenue towards the capitol building alongside Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, another far-right militia known to engage in violence (Zurcher, 2021). This group proceeded to break down the police barricade surrounding the Capitol building, assaulting officers along the way with chemical agents and lead pipes, and eventually breach the building itself (Greenberg & Kim, 2021). Once inside the building rioters vandalized and stole state property and the property of individual Congressmembers, in addition to continuing their assault on some of the police officers stationed there. Notably, rioters stole a laptop from Nancy Pelosi’s office and accessed many more Congressional computers that were supposed to be secure while occupying the building for several hours (Brewster, 2021). Overall, more than 10,000 rioters illegally breached the capitol grounds and over 800 entered the capital building itself, many of them being armed and assaulting police officers or destroying barricades in doing so (Atlanta Council’s DFRLab, 2021). In addition to this, two bombs were also found within a block of the Capitol building that the FBI believed were placed the night beforehand (Herridge et al., 2021). The riots would eventually result in the deaths of five individuals, three rioters who died of self-inflicted injuries, one who was shot attempting to breach the House Chamber, and one capitol police officer who would eventually die in the hospital from injuries he sustained while getting beaten by rioters (Healy, 2021). The significant amount of violence that occurred at the capitol coupled with the fact that most people there partook in some form of violence, or at least made no attempts to stop it, shows that although the StS movement may have been relatively peaceful at its start, it had clearly turned violent by the end of the January 6th Capitol Riots. The issue now is to determine what, if any, effect traditional and social media had in the development of the BLM and StS movement that caused one to remain peaceful and the other to turn violent.

Results of Research into Traditional Media

All of the news reports recorded here were published within the respective timelines mentioned above. In other words, all the articles about the BLM movements were published between May 26th and June 19th of 2020 and all of the StS articles were published between November 3rf, 2021 and January 6th, 2021. Of the 274 different reports found on Fox News’ website using the search term ‘Black Lives Matter,’ 65 provided positive coverage of the movement/protests, 121 provided negative coverage, and 88 provided coverage that was either neutral or informative. This means that roughly 24% of the reports were positive, 44% were negative, and 32% were neutral or informative. As one can see, there were almost twice as many negative reports about the movement than there were positive reports, while the amount of neutral or informative reports released was in the middle of these two. On the other hand, of the 362 reports that CNN released between March 26th and June 19th, 308 provided positive coverage of the BLM movement, 3 provided negative coverage, and 51 provided neutral coverage or were informative. This means that approximately 85% of reports released in the given time frame were positive, 1% were negative, and 14% were neutral or informative. As can be seen, from these statistics, the left-leaning CNN provided positive news coverage of the BLM movement almost four times as often as the right-leaning Fox News did. Conversely, Fox News provided negative coverage more than 40 times as often as CNN did. The distribution of positive vs negative coverage that was provided by the liberal CNN and the conservative Fox News also reflects some of the trends that can be found on social media. This paper will eventually draw the conclusion that the BLM movement’s positive perception of the way they were being covered in the media outlets that they were most likely to consume was responsible for the movement mainly staying peaceful overall.

Conversely, both CNN and Fox News provided much less coverage of the StS movement overall, despite the fact that the timeline for this movement was over twice as long as the timeline for the BLM movement. Of the 124 reports that covered the StS movement and the capitol riots on Fox News, 27 were positive in nature, 75 were negative, and 22 were neutral/informative. Of these reports, only four were found to produce neutral/informative coverage specifically of the Capitol Riots, while the remaining 38 provided negative coverage. This means that approximately 22% of reports were positive, 60% were negative, and 18% were neutral/informative. On CNN, 57 of the 68 reports over the StS movement and the capitol riots provided negative coverage and 11 provided neutral/informative coverage. There were no positive reports covering the StS movement or the Capitol Riots on CNN. Furthermore, all 11 of the reports specifically covering the Capitol Riots that were released on January 6th were negative. This means that roughly 84% of CNN’s coverage of the StS movement and the Capitol Riots was negative and 16% of it was neutral. It is likely that one of the reasons the StS movement became violent is because they were often portrayed negatively by all traditional media, even the ones they trusted the most. However, in addition to traditional media, it would also seem that social media played a very important role in the outcome of these two movements. Some data regarding this claim will be analyzed proceedingly.

(The results of the data explained above are further explored in the following graphs.)

Figure 1

Implications and Impacts of Social Media

Looking at how social media was used during the BLM movement during the Summer of 2020, the hashtag “BlackLivesMatter” was used over 75 million times on various social media websites including Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, while looting was only mentioned 17 million times over roughly the same timeframe (Beckman, 2020a).

Figure 2

Separate data on Instagram showed that posts with #BlackLivesMatter were liked over “338 million times… and received more than 5 million comments” (Beckman, 2020b). This shows that on the majority of the most popular social media sites, the BLM movement in general eclipsed any associations it may have had with looting or other forms of violence. Similarly, on Google, the number of individual searches for “Black Lives Matter” peaked in June 2020 by a large margin and some of the most common search terms associated with the BLM movement were “Protest,” “Say his name,” “I can’t breathe,” “Racial justice,” and “Hands up, don’t shoot;” most of these terms were rallying cries used by the BLM movement and all of them had positive connotations with the movement (Google Trends, 2020). Specifically, the usage of the search terms “protests” and “racial justice” reached a 16 year peak by a wide margin (Google Trends, 2020). Additionally, on almost any given day between May 26th and June 19th, the term “protest” was searched at least 3 times more than its negative counterterm “riot” (Google Trends, n.d.a). These search terms’ usage peaked between May 31st and June 2nd then subsequently declined, however, both the terms “protest” and “Black Lives Matter” remained more searched than the terms “looting” and “riot” following each terms’ respective peaks (Google Trends, n.d.a). These trends that existed across various websites indicate that those who use these popular platforms most likely sought out and were exposed to favorable views of the protests, even on days when some of them turned violent. Even after the most significant protests ended, these trends remained the same, albeit with some overall decreases in the usage of terms.

The fact that the BLM movement as a whole eclipsed the associations with looting and violence that some tried to ascribe to it is an example of how those who were involved in the movement were primarily exposed to positive coverage of it, whether it be through social or traditional media. The BLM movement was primarily made up of Democratic-leaning, young people between the ages of 18 and 34 who were from urban or suburban areas (Barroso & Minkin, 2020). These statistics align with those of most social media websites and the left-leaning news network CNN. For example, 63.8% of Instagram users are 18-34 years old (Tankovska, 2021a). Additionally, its users are more likely to engage in and support liberal messages than Facebook users are, however, users of both platforms voiced strong support for the BLM movement, there were approximately 14.9m social interactions related to BLM on Instagram and 10.9m on Facebook (Rothschild, 2020). On Twitter, 51.8% of users are ages 18-35 and 60% of users identify as left-leaning (Tankovska, 2021b; Hughes & Wojcik, 2019). TikTok is perhaps one of the newest social media websites that was prominent during the Summer 2020 BLM movement and it features perhaps the youngest base with 78.4% of its users being between the ages of 10 and 39 (Tankovska, 2021c). In addition to this, its users are also fairly liberal with 77% of them claiming that the app “helped them learn about social justice and politics” (Ahmed, 2020). Reddit is oftentimes portrayed as more conservative due to prominent rightwing communities like r/The_Donald that have gained media attention in the past, however, research indicates that this might not actually be the case, with 43% of its users identifying as liberal compared to only 19% identifying as conservative, and similar to other social media sites they have a younger base with 64% of their users being 18-29 years old (Sattelberg, 2020). As one can see, there is a significant overlap between the demographics of BLM protesters and the demographics of some of the most prominent social media websites.

This overlap is further reflected by the fact that these sites featured a great number of positive posts regarding the BLM movement. TikTok reported 12 billion views for the hashtag “BlackLivesMatter,” over 24 million #BlackoutTuesday posts were shared on Instagram, and #BlackLivesMatter was used more than 48 million times on Twitter between May 26th and June 7th alone (“Black lives,” 2020). These numbers indicate that there is a correlation between social media users and those involved in the BLM movement. This is likely one of the more important reasons for why the movement remained largely peaceful, despite some agitators trying to make it violent. Because those involved in the protests were more likely to be exposed to and spread positive coverage of it and promotions for peaceful methods of protesting via social media, they likely did not feel the need to become violent because they were receiving instant acknowledgement that their voices were being heard and their message was being spread via social media. As a result, they would rarely feel the hopelessness that some other peaceful protests that turn violent do. Furthermore, negative coverage of the movement that was most often shared by more conservative outlets was rarely seen by those involved in the protests themselves, and if they were exposed to it they likely would not trust it. So, once again one of the main reasons that the BLM protests remained peaceful is likely because of the positive feedback of the movement that the protesters were exposed to which lessened the feelings of hopelessness that have been responsible for other peaceful protests turning violent. This is one explanation for why the BLM movement did not become violent overall, even though it faced several factors that previous studies indicated could cause a shift toward violence, such as state repression in the form of police brutality and the movement being based on communal/social identities.

On the other hand, the StS movement did become violent despite the fact that they did not face much real state repression and were largely based on online communities rather than traditional or geographical ones. Furthermore, these online communities that were in favor of the StS movement often spoke in favor of using violence in order to achieve their goal of ensuring that Trump remains president. One of the most prominent StS groups on Facebook, with over 350,000 members, was removed just two days after the 2020 election over “worrying calls for violence” (Guynn, 2020). Bans and suspensions of major proponents of the StS movement also occurred on some of the other most prominent social media platforms like Twitter and Snapchat, for calls for violence as well as spreading disinformation, however, they mainly focused on individual accounts rather than organized groups (Culliford et al., 2020). Following this trend of being shut down on many of the most popular social media websites, StS supporters began to flock to more fringe and radical platforms where they were not censored, such as Parler, 4Chan, and MeWe. Following November 3rd, POLITICO found that viewing of Telegram channel forums frequented by Proud Boys increased by over 20% and featured roughly five times as many posts, almost all having to do with voter fraud (Scott, 2020). Additionally, the conservative social media app, Parler, was downloaded over one million times in the week of November 8th alone, compared to only 150,000 times throughout all of 2019, and MeWe, another fringe conservative platform, became the most downloaded social media app in the iOS store during the same week (Scott, 2020). Many of those who downloaded these apps or who already had them would go on to create dozens of StS groups (Fowler, 2020). There were also many more calls for violence on these platforms that were often left unchecked by the moderators of said sites, some of them specifically mentioned plans to station militias near the capitol and enact other forms of violence if Trump commanded them to or did not remain president, in addition to making more generalized transportation plans in preparation for January 6th. Some specific examples include users claiming that they need to “remove the cancer permanently, before it’s too late” asking “what would locking them [Congress Members] up accomplish[?]” and Oath Keepers and Proud Boys making plans to show up “incognito” with “body armor,” “pepper spray,” and other weapons for multiple demonstrations including the riots that occurred on January 6th (Atlanta Council’s DFRLab, 2021). Additionally, the StS movement overall was often associated with violence more often than the BLM movement was. Data from Google Trends (n.d.b) shows that from November 3rd to January 5th there were only 2 days where “stop the steal” was searched for more than the term “riots,” and both terms were searched relatively less than many of the terms associated with the BLM movement ever were. In addition to this, the term “riots” was searched over ten times more than “stop the steal” on the day of January 6th alone (Google Trends, n.d.b). This shows how the StS movement was more likely to be associated with violence than the BLM movement even before the capitol riots took place. This association that was commonly accepted online likely played a role in the supporters of StS becoming more and more radical. With this information in mind it becomes fairly obvious that the use of these fringe social media platforms,as well as the denunciation of the movement from traditional media, had an impact on the plans surrounding January 6th and the StS movement’s ultimate shift from somewhat peaceful to clearly violent.

Conclusions

In conclusion, when looking at the research mentioned above, it becomes fairly clear that social and traditional media likely had an important influence on the outcome of both of the major American protest movements. The positive perception of the BLM movement and the news it spread and received on platforms such as CNN, Twitter, Instagram, etc. almost certainly contributed to it remaining peaceful because it caused those involved in the movement to be exposed to primarily positive coverage of it, and thus they never felt as though they needed to utilize widespread violence in order to achieve their goals. On the other hand, the StS movement ultimately became violent as a result of the Capitol Riots of January 6th because there was very little positive coverage of their movement on mainstream media platforms. Furthermore, they were often banned from organizing on these platforms because of their spreading of misinformation and calls for violence. This resulted in them seeking solace in more fringe social media sites where they were exposed to much more radical ideas by online communities that often promoted more violence and spread more misinformation. The prevalence of these radical and fringe communities created on these far-right social media platforms ultimately led to the riots of January 6th that caused the movement to be designated as violent. This makes it fairly clear that the media had different effects on these two movements which ultimately caused the StS movement to become violent while the BLM movement remained largely peaceful.

While some of the results of this research may seem somewhat obvious, a great deal of the value of this research comes from how it rejects some previous theories regarding the subject of why peaceful protests become violent. As one can see the BLM movement faced a great deal of state repression in the form of police brutality and it was largely a communally based movement, in four of the largest cities that hosted protests during the 2nd wave of the BLM more than 75% of all supporters were from inside each city (Mobilewalla, 2020). Yet despite facing these factors that previous theories argue would cause a movement to become violent, the BLM protests remained mostly peaceful due to the fact that they received positive feedback from both the traditional and social forms of media that they were exposed to. Notably, following Trump’s use of force to disperse peaceful protesters so he could take a church photo op, the next few days in DC featured some of the city’s most peaceful protests thus far. On the other hand, the StS movement faced very little actual state repression, although they did perceive that the state was repressing them via a stolen election even though this was proven to be false multiple times. Furthermore, a great deal of those involved in some of the most prominent StS demonstrations, including the Capitol Riots of January 6th, were not from a traditional geographically based community but rather online ones where they discussed and organized the movement. Yet the StS movement still ended violently with one of the reasons being that mainstream coverage of it from both social and traditional media was primarily negative causing its members to use fringe social media sites where they became more in favor of using violence and more radicalized within these online communities. However, it is important to note that this research does not excuse the violent actions of any movement, rather it merely provides a glimpse into one of the potential causes for them. This research suggests that the prevalence of media, new and old alike, and the communities it creates and attracts can have a very important effect on whether or not a protest remains peaceful or becomes violent and that in at least these two cases it can have even more of an effect than some traditionally promoted theories for peaceful movements turning violent. Clearly, more research needs to be done into the ever developing digital landscape in order to further understand what effects traditional and social media can have on the development and outcome of protests all over the world in regards to whether or not they turn violent.


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