St. Lawrence University
Taylor Draper




On average, there are about 500 million tweets posted per day (Twitter Usage Statistics). These tweets elicit an array of responses, interactions, and connect people across the globe. Twitter was used extensively during and after the protests in Ferguson, when Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Mike Brown. Journalists and activists used Twitter to report and document Ferguson, as well as the events that followed. Journalists and activists were able to use Twitter as a means to spread facts, opinions, and first-hand experiences during the events Ferguson. Because of Twitter’s functions, it serves as a fundamental landscape for news and the exchange of ideas and information.

 Journalists and activists provoked a lot of interaction during the first month after Ferguson. Although there has been research conducted about the power of images, there has not been research focusing on the comparison of tweets with and without images and the engagement they elicit. Thus, this research will focus on which tweets posted by activists were more engaging depending on whether or not they included an image. The dataset in Pulsar was composed of 48,234 tweets, and the data for this research is a subset of Pulsar’s dataset. There were a total of 45 journalists and 47 activists who were tweeting about Ferguson or #Ferguson during this specific time period presented in Pulsar. This research will focus on a subset of the 47 activists. There were tweets within the Pulsar dataset that displayed images, videos, links, text, or any combination of the four. This research used ethnographic content analysis, but not in it’s traditional form. Ethnographic content analysis traditionally focuses on collecting numerical and narrative data, thus interpreting content (Altheide & Schneider, 2013). However, this research focused on format and discourse, rather than the content itself. Different types of tweets elicit different emotional responses from other Twitter users. For the sake of this research, the difference in engagement between tweets containing images and those with only text will be examined. Engagement will be measured by the number of replies, retweets, and likes a tweet receives. This research will observe the tweets of activists Deray McKesson and Antonio French, who were among the top influencers during the first month after the shooting of Michael Brown. With Twitter expanding to a dominant social media platform, it’s important to understand the ways in which activists for social movements can use Twitter to spread ideas, events, news, and opinions with not only those local to the area of the social movement, but also to people all across the globe. Therefore, it is important to research what types of tweets elicit a greater amount of engagement in order for activists to see which type of tweet is most successful.


Background & Literature Review

Appraisal theories suggest that emotions stem from particular cognitive interpretations of events ( Iyer, Webster, Hornsey, & Vanman, 2014; Frijda, 1986; Ortony, Clore, & Collins, 1988; Roseman, 2001). Some theoretical frameworks highlight the role of cognitive appraisals in determining emotional responses to a conflict or injustice (Iyer, Webster, Hornsey, & Vanman, 2014; Halperin, Sharvit, & Gross, 2011; Leach, Snider, & Iyer, 2002). The shooting of Michael Brown is an example of a conflict or injustice that elicited sympathy, especially when shown via image, and is supported by the research of Salovey and Rosenhan that states awareness of others’ suffering elicits feelings of sympathy (1989). Social movements, such as the protests in Ferguson, can be influenced by the emotions people feel (Goodwin, Jasper, & Polletta, 2001; van Zomeren & Iyer, 2009), and images have the power to trigger more emotional engagement (Rogers, 2014).

Many authors and researchers have examined the power of images, and suggest that images lead to a high rate of engagement (Iyer, Webster, Hornsey, & Vanman, 2014; Rogers, 2014; Araiza, Sturm, Istek, & Bock, 2016). Twitter defines engagement as the number of times a user interacted with a tweet. This includes, but is not limited to, retweets, likes, and replies (Tweet Activity Dashboard).  A reply is simply a response to one’s tweet, whether it is in agreement, disagreement, or neutral. A like on Twitter can be used to bookmark, as a sign of empathy or cold blood, or to signify that a user is ending a conversation (The Meanings of a Favorite and Retweet, 2014; Lee, Antoniadia, & Salamatian, 2010). A retweet can be used as a sign of agreement, to share information, to boost someone’s ego, to snapshot, to payback, or to give the tweet greater exposure to reinforce a message (The Meanings of a Favorite and Retweet, 2014; Cha, Haddadi, Benevenuto, & Gummadi, 2010). Regardless of the reasoning behind the like, retweet, or reply, these attributes are still signifiers of engagement.

This engagement can also impact a tweeter’s influence on Twitter (Cha, Haddadi, Benevenuto, & Gummadi, 2010; Lee, Antoniadia, & Salamatian, 2010). Influencers can be defined as being informed, respected, and well connected (Cha, Haddadi, Benevenuto, & Gummadi, 2010), or even as opinion leaders (Katz and Lazarsfeld 1955). Influencers also have the ability to make a campaign go viral for a small cost (Cha, Haddadi, Benevenuto, & Gummadi, 2010). Thus, Deray and Antonio’s tweets were important to examine given they were two of the greatest influencers on Twitter during the first month after the shooting. Douglas Mason’s study also reports that images provide a 35% increase in retweets (Rogers, 2014). Given this background, one can assume that tweets with images are more likely to be more engaging than tweets with only text.


So What?

This information is important when considering ways to receive more engagement and exposure on Twitter, for reasons such as social movements, elections, or topics/events the user deems important. For journalists and activists, this research can act as a useful tool in determining what to tweet and how to tweet in order to receive more exposure. Much like the “if it bleeds, it leads” idea that is relevant to reporting, these results can influence the conscious decisions of journalists and activists when determining what type of content they use in their tweets. This information can be useful for an average tweeter as well. It can guide them on how to be more engaging on Twitter, and which tweeting strategies are more useful when trying to relay a message, or simply gain more followers as a result of exposure.


Research Question

This research will examine if there is a difference in engagement among tweets with only text, and tweets that also contain images. The dataset in the Pulsar is used to determine a justifiable assumption of which tweets are more engaging based on the first month after Michael Brown was shot.



It is expected that it is more likely for tweets with images to be more engaging than tweets with only text. This hypothesis is based off of the findings of previous research and literature, as well as observations of every day interaction on Twitter.  



This study used Pulsar, a social media platform that provided specific data sets regarding Ferguson. This dataset was composed of 48,234 tweets. Tweets were collected from 92 users, consisting of 47 activists and 45 journalists. The data for this research is a subset of the data provided in Pulsar. Previous research found that it’s valuable to look at individual users (what are journalists tweeting), so this study focused on two of the most influential activists during the first month after the shooting, Deray McKesson and Antonio French. Within the network of influencers, the data in Graph 1 shows that Deray and Antonio French were among the top most influential activists during this time.

Selected to represent the broader sample, the two activists collectively tweeted 2,357 times during the first month after Ferguson. McKesson ended the month with 1,157 tweets, while French ended with 1,200 tweets. These tweets included retweets, replies, and the quoting of other tweets. This research examines if tweets containing images within the first month after the shooting in Ferguson were more engaging than those that contained only text. Engagement was determined by the number of replies, retweets, and likes the tweet received in comparison to other tweets the activist posted. The comparison of tweets of the same user is used for the sake of internal validity. This is not to compare which activist appeared more influential, but whether their tweets containing images were more engaging than their tweets with only text.

This study used an untraditional form of ethnographic content analysis, where format and discourse were observed to examine the tweets by Deray and Antonio French. According to Altheide and Schneider, with content analysis the investigator is continually central, and theoretical relationships are verified (2013). This research used a sample of a total of 100 tweets between the two users. The Pulsar platform was then used to filter the data. The first filter was as follows: original post only, text only, ages 18-34, and from August 9, 2014 – September 9, 2014. Then, once these tweets were examined and results were recorded, the next filter was used. The second filter was: original post only, tweets with images, ages 18-34, and from August 9, 2014 – September 9, 2014. This date range was used to examine the first month after the shooting. Original post only indicated that the tweets displayed were only the activists’ original tweets, excluding tweets the activist retweeted. This research used a sample of a total of 100 tweets between the two users. A random sample of twenty-five tweets was observed for each filter for each activist. It was logical to use random sampling of 25 tweets per filter, per activist, due to time constraints. This age range was used because it was assumed that tweeters from 18-34 were more likely to be tweeting about Ferguson at a greater rate than other age groups since this age group is typically assumed to be tech savvy.

Within the dataset in Pulsar, the correct number of retweets and likes the tweet received were not being properly displayed. Therefore, in order to determine the number of likes, retweets, and replies the tweet received, it was necessary to link the tweet to Twitter using Pulsar. Therefore, although the tweets were gathered using Pulsar, the number of likes, retweets, and replies were actually found using Twitter due to Pulsar’s limitations. Due to this limitation, it was important to hand code the tweets, as well as record the findings by hand.


Findings & Analysis

The events in Ferguson were no less than tragic. As news spread about the events during and after Michael Brown’s death, activists took to Twitter to express their perspectives and emotion on the situation. Not only were these tweets of unbiased reporting beneficial for those in Ferguson who were only seeing reports that were televised, but also for those across the globe who were not there to witness it firsthand. Tweets with images appeared to be more compelling to viewers, as they received more engagement than tweets with only text.

This research supports the hypothesis that tweets with images are more engaging than tweets with only text. This conclusion is supported by the tweets posted by Deray McKesson and Antonio French during August 9, 2014 to September 9, 2014 found in the Pulsar platform dataset. Deray’s text-only tweets received anywhere from 0-40 likes, 2-124 retweets, and 1-7 replies. His tweets that also contained images received anywhere from 1-37 likes, 5-159 retweets, and 1-12 replies. Although the range of numbers are similar for both types of tweet, the number of likes, retweets, and replies his tweets containing images received were consistently higher than those with only text. Deray’s text-only tweets received an average of 7 likes, 44 retweets, and 3 replies. Yet, his tweets with images received an average of 14 likes, 53 retweets, and 11 replies. The comparisons can be seen in Graph 2. It’s important to note that Deray’s number of followers was significantly lower at this time than it is now.

Although the difference in likes, retweets, and replies for Deray’s tweets with images and his text-only tweets weren’t drastically different, the difference is still significant considering his reach during this first month was only a few thousand people. It wasn’t until later months that Deray gained a significant amount of followers. However, Antonio French was a greater influencer at this time, reaching hundreds of thousands of people within this first month after the shooting. This is supported by the fact that his text-only tweets received anywhere from 6-736 likes, 27-966 retweets, and 3-150 replies. His tweets with photos received anywhere from 159-775 likes, 103-1,398 retweets, and 5-200 replies. Antonio’s text-only tweets received an average of 213 likes, 357 retweets, and 52 replies. Yet, his tweets with images received an average of 455 likes, 814 retweets, and 80 replies. The comparison can be seen in Graph 3. The difference in likes, retweets, and replies for Antonio’s tweets with images and his text-only tweets was not only greater than Deray’s, but also more solidly supports that tweets with images elicit a greater emotional response than tweets with only text.

The emotion and opinion represented in the tweets containing images increases the likelihood of responses, whether in agreement or opposition. It’s hard to argue facts, and it’s easy to engage in emotion. This makes sense since the tweets containing images were generally more affective than tweets with only text. Tweets with images also provide a visual firsthand experience that many people were not receiving. Seeing the violence and mistreatment visually allows the user to sympathize on a more emotional level, which then influences engagement. From the sample of 100 tweets by Deray and Antonio, the images presented in the tweets were generally eye opening and heart wrenching, even for those who did not actually experience the protests in Ferguson. It’s important to note that Deray’s number of followers skyrocketed as a result of his stance on Twitter. Now, he has over double the amount of followers as Antonio French, and is even running for mayor of St. Louis.  

Finding that tweets with images are more engaging than tweets with only text is important when considering how to tweet in order to receive more engagement. Social movements are especially relevant to this idea. If an activist is trying to spread a message, they’ll want to make sure they’re composing tweets conducive to engagement. This research shows that adding images to tweets increases the likelihood that the tweet will receive some sort of engagement, from likes, to retweets, to replies. With this knowledge, twitter users looking to spread some sort of message to a greater audience should add images to their tweets as a means to elicit emotional responses and increase engagement.


This research shows that despite limitations that may occur with social media platforms, results can still be found using roundabout means. Within the first month after Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed Michael Brown, activists Deray McKesson and Antonio French were two of the greatest influencers on Twitter. With over 2,000 tweets, these activists were able to spread firsthand content of the events in Ferguson to Twitter users all over the globe. There were tweets that contained only text, and some that also displayed images. Between these two influencers, it is evident that their tweets with images were more engaging than their tweets where only text was present. Whether they’re activists or average users, Twitter users should take note of what type of tweets are likely to receive more engagement for the purposes of spreading news and experiences. This research shows that during the first month after Michael Brown’s death, tweets with images were more engaging than tweets with only text. 




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