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Research reveals overlooked impact of racial justice protests on public discourse

A participant holds a Black Lives Matter banner during the speeches.
André Chung for NPR
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André Chung for NPR
A participant holds a Black Lives Matter banner during the Commitment March on August 28, 2020 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

New research from the Univ. of Washington and Indiana University shows how Black Lives Matter protests have shifted and impacted the conversation around social issues in recent years.

Researchers tracked spikes in search terms online since Black Lives Matter protests began in 2014. They found that not only did protests get people talking, but what people were talking about changed.

In 2014, people mainly looked up specific police killings or the names of particular victims like "Trayvon Martin." By 2016, people were searching for more structural concepts like "systemic racism".

“And then in 2020, during the George Floyd uprising, we see just everything that we're looking at is firing, people are looking up all these different terms like 'prison abolition,' “mass incarceration,” 'the new Jim Crow,' “redlining.'” said Indiana University researcher Zackary Dunivin.

It's digital evidence of how the way communities talk about these issues has significantly changed as a direct result of the protests. That evidence is an overlooked measure of the impact and success of the Black Lives Matter movement, said UW researcher Jelani Ince.

“Interest in search terms, increase in search terms, and not just in police victims but in these larger ideas from the movement about what’s affecting the Black community, is also part of the movement's agenda,” he said. “It’s showing that we have to think about, and maybe reimagine how we think about what change looks like.”

It’s not a concrete result like getting a law changed or changing a practice at an institution, said Dunivin, but those things can’t happen unless people know about the concepts behind them.

“That is in itself a victory,” Dunivin said. “To get people to talk about the things that you think are important is a victory, even if it's not getting everybody to agree.”

Mayowa Aina reports and produces special projects, including podcasts and series, for KNKX. Mayowa started her public radio career at KUOW in Seattle. She's worked at NPR in Washington, D.C. and Alaska Public Media before moving back to her hometown of Tacoma to work at KNKX.