This piece was originally published in the June 1, 2022 edition of CAP Action’s weekly newsletter, What’s Trending?
Welcome back to What’s Trending,
Before we get started, I want to give a content warning—this newsletter will focus largely on gun violence and the recent mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas. I would not blame anyone who wanted to avoid reading more about this subject, and I wish I didn’t have to write about it.
But I believe it’s important to look at the response to this national tragedy online and do our best to learn something from it.
What’s trending this week
On May 24, the Uvalde shooting quickly became the top story in the United States on Facebook, peaking with more than 14 million interactions on May 25. However, as you can see in the chart below, it also dropped off quickly, down to less than 2 million interactions by May 29.
According to NewsWhip data shared with Axios, this drop-off of attention online has occurred much more quickly than with other comparable events, such as the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. In 2018, articles related to Parkland received more than 2.5 million engagements per post for 15 days—Uvalde dropped under that threshold after just six days. That’s an astonishing—and alarming—difference.
We also pulled out five related subtopics to track how they rose or fell in the days after the Uvalde tragedy. Posts related to guns and police or law enforcement saw the biggest increase in engagement, and the most staying power over the following five days. This makes sense given the ongoing movement on gun control legislation and the investigation into law enforcement’s response in Uvalde—although the numbers may be slightly inflated by posts unrelated to Uvalde in the broader news environment as well.
Posts with keywords related to prayer saw nearly 2 million interactions on May 24 and May 25, but dropped off quickly after that. And interestingly, more specific topics such as mental health awareness or assault rifles, which are both often mentioned in policy discussions after a mass shooting, were barely mentioned on Facebook in the last week.
Who’s leading the conversation
Beyond the topline metrics, we can also look a little deeper using our social listening database to see how different pages are contributing to overall trends, based on how often these keywords were mentioned by progressive-leaning or conservative-leaning pages. For this analysis, we looked at all posts for pages in our database between 1 p.m. EDT on May 24 and midnight EDT on May 29, and checked the text in the copy of a post as well as the image or link (where applicable) for relevant keywords, in order to see how often the respective groups of pages mentioned them.
Since conservative pages post more frequently than progressive pages in general, I use percentages below rather than total number of posts for comparison. The results are pretty interesting.
- Uvalde: Mentioned in 10.8 percent of posts from progressive pages and 9.5 percent from conservative pages—about equal overall.
- Guns (including firearm, rifle, and weapon): Mentioned in 26 percent of posts from progressive pages compared with 10.3 percent of posts from conservative pages—an astounding 2.5x difference.
- Police (including law enforcement or Border Patrol): Mentioned in 5.3 percent of progressive posts, 7 percent of conservative posts. Conservative pages were also slightly more likely to mention the word “hero” in their posts.
- Teachers: Mentioned three times as often by progressive pages (6.1 percent of posts) than by conservative pages (1.9 percent).
- Prayer: Progressive pages were more likely to mention praying in their posts (3.1 percent)—sometimes in support of the victims, sometimes in criticism of the stereotyped “thoughts and prayers” responses after mass shootings—than conservatives (1.7 percent).
The disparities between progressive and conservative pages in their willingness to mention guns in their Facebook posts after Uvalde is striking and revealing, but so too is the difference in audience engagement:
- Average interactions on posts from progressive-leaning pages in our database increased 80 percent when comparing the five days after the Uvalde shooting (May 25–May 29) to the five preceding days (May 19–May 23), compared with only a 6 percent increase for conservative-leaning pages.
- This is a similar phenomenon to what we saw with conservative pages after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with progressive audiences engaging out of outrage and conservative audiences staying flat. This effect is also reflected in the distribution of top posts over the last two weeks, seen below.
The top ten posts from progressive pages over the last two weeks all occurred after the Uvalde shooting, with topics focused on the victims and gun violence. Mourning posts from President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama were both among the top 10, with each receiving more than 200,000 interactions. Top posts from George Takei and Occupy Democrats made the connection between the failure to protect schools from mass shootings and the conservative-led movements to ban books at the local level.
By comparison, only five of the top posts from conservative pages mentioned Uvalde or gun violence, with the other five coming from before May 24. However, the top conservative post by engagement was indicative of conservative messaging on Uvalde, with an image reading “Evil does not exist within a gun. It exists in the minds and hearts of those who pull the trigger for evil purposes.” It was shared more than 300,000 times—by far the highest total in our dataset.
That’s all for today. I’ll be back in your inboxes in two weeks—until then, take care of yourselves.
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This newsletter is written by Eric Coffin-Gould (@coffingould on Twitter), with production, research, and insight from CAP Action’s fantastic digital team.