Courtney Cogburn Receives Grant to Analyze Twitter Discourse on #BlackLivesMatter

April 7, 2021 @ 3:30 pm
By Communications Office

The project will analyze, on a large scale, the emotionally charged social media exchanges that follow the police killings of unarmed Black people.

Columbia’s Data Science Institute (DSI) has awarded a grant from its Seed Funds Program to two of its members, CSSW Associate Professor Courtney Cogburn and Barnard College Professor of Psychology & Africana Studies Colin Wayne Leach, for their project “Racialized Sentiment on Twitter: The Dynamics of Online Emotional Language.” Together they will lead an interdisciplinary team in combining social behavioral theory with cutting-edge computational and statistical techniques to interpret the emotions and motivations of Twitter users reacting to the Black Lives Matter movement. Other team members include Sining Chen, an adjunct professor of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research at the Fu Foundation of the School of Engineering and Applied Science; Kathleen McKeown, the Henry and Gertrude Rothschild Professor of Computer Science and the founding director of DSI; and Susan McGregor, an associate research scholar at DSI.

Dean Melissa Begg congratulated the team, saying “The most exciting research is, without a doubt, occurring at the interstices of different disciplines. This unique collaboration leverages the strengths of social work, behavioral science, technology, and data science to better understand the emergence of and responses to important social movements like Black Lives Matter.”

“The project is designed to lead to a longer collaboration will also contribute to the development of natural language processing approaches and serve as a pilot for future collaborations in research on racial equity,” Cogburn said.

Cogburn and Leach’s team will utilize 45 keywords to analyze language used in a database of over 40 million tweets by more than 4 million unique users, posted in 2014–2015 and the summer of 2020. The tweets address the killings of Michael Brown, George Floyd, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others, as well as the protest movements in response to their killings, the counterprotests, and the convictions or acquittals of the police officers who killed them. With the help of several students, the team has already completed a first phase of analyzing more than 10 million tweets from the 2014–2015 period.

“Having in the dataset the two ‘bookend’ events of a police killing [of Michael Brown] and non-indictment [of Darren Wilson]—with mass protests in between—enables analyses of a fuller socio-temporal dynamic than is yet possible with the ongoing events of this past summer,” Cogburn and Leach wrote in their 2020 proposal for the DSI seed grant.

The project builds on Cogburn’s work since coming to the School of Social Work, where she has been exploring the use of emerging technologies, including computational social science, to examine patterns and psychosocial effects of cultural racism. She is the lead creator of 1000 Cut Journey, an immersive virtual reality racism experience developed in collaboration with the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018. She is also a faculty affiliate of the Center on African American Politics and Society, director of the Cogburn Research Group, and co-director of the Justice Equity + Tech (JE+T) Laboratory at Columbia University.

The mission of the Data Science Institute is to advance the state-of-the-art in data science; transform all fields, professions, and sectors through the application of data science; and ensure the responsible use of data to benefit society. Drawing on Columbia’s strengths in computer science, statistics, and industrial engineering and operations research, DSI was launched in 2012 to unite expertise and a University-wide interest in this revolutionary approach. The University is a trailblazer in the field and is poised to expand data science to every corner of the institution.

Related links:

Courtney Cogburn’s Work on Racism Featured on CBS News

Turning Racism Awareness into Action