I'm terrible at Twitter. I have a small account, tweet inconsistently, and cannot decide whether I am a social scientist, Latin Americanist, baseball fan, or casual observer. The groups that I follow and the few who follow me are fractured. In part, this is a function of my distrust in the whole enterprise: on Twitter, like Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and other social media, everyone with an account is a salesperson in charge of selling opinions. This is exacerbated when users are limited to 140 characters to make a point, generate retweets, and attract clicks: complex ideas and thoughts (to say nothing of shallow ones) are broken down into black and white polemics or outrageous viewpoints. In short, this is an environment of Manichean expression, uncompromising viewpoints, and intransigence, which are not qualities propitious to my day job as a Political Scientist. In the latter capacity, I am trained to be skeptical of existing knowledge, objective in testing a causal relationship, and cautious in drawing conclusions.
The media is general is a favorite target of Political Scientists—see The Monkey Cage—who are bothered more than most by a lack of theory, lack of context, lack of objectivity, or a misunderstanding of multifaceted ideas (just ask any Political Scientist about Tom Friedman or Fox News). Yet there is not a level of criticism towards Twitter commensurate to the lack of qualifiers and complexity exhibited by myriad public figures—to say nothing of the other 400 million daily tweets from the platform’s 200 million daily users. The possibilities for disagreement rise sharply when controversial events like the death of an unarmed Eric Garner and #ICantBreath gain the public’s attention.
Yesterday, Aaron Gleeman, a Minnesota Twins blogger and a writer for NBC’s HardballTalk, tweeted out a Gawker article entitled "Unarmed People of Color Killed by Police, 1999-2014". In it, Gawker uses a series of NAACP Legal Defense Fund tweets and crowdsourcing to compile a list of people of color killed by the police in the U.S. in the past 15 years. Anyone relying on Gawker for their news should probably reevaluate that choice, but the story has made the rounds: 166,000 views in under 24 hours.
What piqued my interest was a follow-up tweet Gleeman sent only minutes later:
This epitomizes everything I despise about Twitter and its dangers. First, instead of an actual in-depth report or an article about the effect of race on police treatment and the possibility of police abuse, an incredibly sensitive topic, the tweet is a narrative-filled, semi-sensationalistic Gawker "report". Details are structured to create one-sided stories of police brutality against people of color, and there is an absolute paucity of considering opposing views and alternative explanations beyond: the police are racist and abusive.
It is disappointing that so few in the media seem to want to interview any criminologists, who, you know, study these things for a living. They would probably lend further credence to the NAACP report without relying on evidence selected on the dependent variable. The combination of "police brutality" and "minorities" on Google Scholar yields 59,600 results. Articles like "Minority threat and police brutality: Determinants of civil rights criminal complaints in US municipalities" or "Community accountability, minority threat, and police brutality: an examination of civil rights criminal complaints" from the peer-reviewed journal Criminology provide robust statistical evidence that minorities of all races are disproportionately the targets of police brutality. In fact, I am disappointed that Gleeman, an analytics’ proponent and stat-conversant writer when it comes to baseball, should ignore more theoretically and statistically substantial work to tweet something from (again) Gawker. In fact, this is the type of question fivethirtyeight.com is great at answering (since writers on the site tend to ignore theory in favor of empirical relationships anyway)
Second, @sogren2184’s response to the tweet is of course bothersome because it is facile and combative ("the answer to that is irrelevant because it doesn’t fit the Liberal narrative of cops hating black people. Duh."), subverting a complex topic into an "us" vs. "them" shoutfest. @sogren2184 probably doesn’t invite complexity into his daily philosophical ramblings.
Third, on Twitter, even the attempts at intelligent discourse are easily ignored. It is possible that Gleeman was just responding to @sogren2184’s message with "Sad to say, but I expected this type of reaction", but it is a shame that the interesting comment—@cosmo334’s reaction—was ignored: "any stats out there on people (no matter color) killed by cops during the same time frame?". What an excellent, skeptical, social science-y question! It is a topic worth exploring, and, as the Criminology articles attest, is one constantly being addressed: is there a difference in the rate of police killing of unarmed citizens of color and citizens as a whole? Do Latinos, Asian-Americans, Americans of Middle Eastern descent, etc. suffer a similar rate of police brutality? Are these figures tied to arrest or conviction rates by race, or are they independent? Are there jurisdictional and geographical pockets where police brutality is more likely? How about where police brutality against minorities is more likely? What role does income play? Structural factors? Sex? Religion? The Gawker article tweeted and retweeted throughout the Twittersphere does not give us any true answers—only false ones that provoke more confrontation. How, for instance, would @sogren2184 combat an academic article than scientifically reveals the extent of racism and police brutality? Could that be shouted down as a Liberal lie?
I will continue to read my Minnesota Twins' updates on Twitter, and given my penchant for shades of gray and unwillingness to be confrontational, I will certainly also maintain my minimal following. That’s Ok. I’ll stick to my social science.