Politics & Government

Guns and Tweets

UW research tracks Twitter’s reaction to mass shootings.

Close-up of hands holding a glowing smartphone

A UW study found strong support for gun rights on Twitter after mass shootings — stronger than support for gun control. iStock_bombuscreative

When Congress fails to act on policy after mass shootings, gun-control advocates often blame the lobbying power of the National Rifle Association and other special interests. But recently published research out of UW–Madison adds another group to the equation: Twitter users.

The study — conducted by a team of journalism, computer engineering, political science, and gender studies researchers — found a consistent reaction cycle to 59 mass shootings between 2012 and 2014. Sympathetic expressions on Twitter were intense but fleeting, lasting 24 to 48 hours. Calls for gun control spiked in the aftermath but quickly dropped off within a week or two. In contrast, posts in support of gun rights and the Second Amendment held steady for more than a month.

“The signal to both journalists and politicians may be that the passion of gun-rights supporters merits more attention and action than short-lived appeals for gun control,” wrote the researchers, who analyzed more than 1 million tweets.

The study also found that the demographics of those involved in the shootings predicted the type of social media response. Shootings with children as victims received more expressions of sympathy and calls for gun control, while those with a large number of African American victims received less attention overall.

The multidisciplinary team plans for the study to be the first in a wider research program on mass shootings, media, and social outcomes.

Published in the Winter 2019 issue


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