Surprise! People are sophisticated
Updated at 1:15 p.m. ET: Over at msnbc.com, I have a piece looking at how people have followed the Trayvon Martin case online. This is one of the projects we’re doing with Crimson Hexagon’s Forsight social media tools, which are explained in this post.
Although you might get the impression from news coverage of the case that the American public wants George Zimmerman’s head on a stake, what the American public has been saying on Twitter and Facebook and in online forums is much more nuanced.
After crunching more than 2.6 million posts since the Feb. 26 shooting, our analysis found that nearly everyone sympathizes with Martin’s family; at the same time, many people have paid attention to the complications posed by Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, and once public attention settled down after Zimmerman’s arrest last week, a slight majority of those who expressed a clear opinion on Zimmerman’s culpability seem to believe that while he was wrong, he may not actually have broken any laws.
Zimmerman’s bond hearing Friday brought the case back to the front of public consciousness, and as it has several times since Feb. 26, opinion began shifting once again. A slight majority of Friday’s commentary through noon ET indicated a belief that Zimmerman is, in fact, guilty.
This would seem to indicate that people’s opinions aren’t set in stone. It wasn’t until March 29, when ABC News’ police surveillance video appeared to show that Zimmerman wasn’t injured, that a majority first began believing he was guilty of a crime:
After his arrest — when commentary receded to a smaller audience of people who’ve been closely following the case — it swung back the other way.
There’s a tendency, especially among journalists, to dismiss online comments as a cesspool of ungoverned vitriol. But our analysis suggests that when you really dive into it, the extreme expression is an outlier. In the main, people really do think about what they’re going to say and are willing to publicly change their minds; we just don’t pay attention to them.
This could be a result of selective perception — like anybody else, we notice the extreme and gloss over the dozens of surrounding comments that look, for lack of a better word, “normal.” I’d suggest that’s not the best journalistic practice.
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