For years, mass shootings in the US have elicited a common refrain on social media: “Sending thoughts and prayers.”
The routine requests for divine intervention are source of frustration for gun control advocates, who argue action—assault rifle bans and new gun restrictions—are what’s needed.
Now, “thoughts and prayers” may finally be fading from the gun control discourse in the US, according to Mary Blankenship, a graduate student researcher at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Carol Graham, global economy research director at the Brookings Institution, who have studied the online responses to mass shootings since 2017.
The pair analyzed nearly a million tweets posted in the days before and after recent shootings, both in Buffalo, New York, where 10 people were killed in a supermarket on May 14, and in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 fourth-grade children and two teachers were gunned down by a local teenager on May 24. Following these tragic events, “there was almost no mention of religion or God,” in Twitter posts, they write in a Brookings Institution report, “suggesting that any hope in that domain in terms of resolving our gun violence problem is long gone.”
“A lot more people are sick and tired of having to deal with these issues and these tragedies,” Blankenship tells Quartz. Her research with Graham found people who are both for and against gun control think that mass shootings need to be addressed.
Americans on both sides of the issue are also increasingly afraid of mass casualty events, particularly those that target schools. “That may change the nature of the conversation,” they write. However, neither group appears ready to talk about specific solutions, the analysis found.
What do Twitter responses to Buffalo and Uvalde reveal?
To conduct their research, Blankenship and Graham first identified tweets to include by searching for mentions of “shootings” or place names in a 10-day period around the time of the event. Next, they divided the people behind the qualifying tweets into two broad groups: right-leaning posters who supported gun rights and left-leaning voters who called for gun control. Twitter users were assigned to one of the two categories based on information in their Twitter profile, in which Twitter users often reveal their political affiliations, or their position on gun control, or both. Tweets from people who could not be identified as belonging squarely to one of the two groups were excluded from the analysis. In both cases, the researchers found left-leaning Twitter users posted about three times more than gun-rights advocates.
Next, Blankenship and Graham compared the emotional reactions and the hashtags used in tweets from people on both sides of the debate, finding predictable differences, but also some shared concerns.
After the Buffalo shooting, people in the left-leaning group were more likely to tweet about the need to end gun violence and to call out right-leaning Fox News as complicit in the bloodshed. Tweets from this group “focused solely on the victim and the shooting itself—they were talking about guns, and about how the shooter was a self-identified anti-Semite and white supremacist,” says Blankenship.
The right-leaning Twitter users, meanwhile, responded to the shootings with “whataboutism,” she says. Their tweets were concerned with, for example, the hypocrisy of media accounts that ignored crimes committed by non-white men, and in particular the response to the killing of five people in Wisconsin last year, when a man driving an SUV plowed into a Christmas parade.
Following the Uvalde school shooting, responses from the left and right were slightly more similar to each other, says Blankenship. In this case, the researchers detected more sympathy and concern for the victims in tweets by the pro-gun group, and both groups “lamented the high death tolls of the shooting,” says Blankenship.
Here’s a look at word clouds featuring key words tweeted after the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings. (Words that are larger and in bold were used most frequently.)
What emoji faces said about emotional responses from the left and right
Blankenship and Graham also examined how emoji faces were used in the selected tweets and identified six emotional reactions that both groups expressed: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, and neutral/other. They found that the right-leaning group displayed fear and anger more than other emotions, while the one leaning left mostly shared angry emoji faces, though they also posted fearful or sad faces, just to a lesser degree.
(Happy or smiling faces were rare overall. They were occasionally used in replies to comments about gun control or in tweets that mocked specific beliefs, says Blankenship.)
Tweets from people on either side of the gun control debate were more likely to feature anger or fear than those from general Twitter users, Blankenship says. However, the reasons members from either group felt fearful or angry diverged. For example, the key drivers of fear and anger among the pro-gun group were connected to conspiracy theories, often involving Joe Biden and his family or the Clintons, says Blankenship. Angry left-leaning tweets about the Buffalo shooting were centered on the shooter and his racist ideology.
Both groups were angry about how Uvalde police responded to the school shooting. Once again, however, in the right-leaning group, some anger was linked to false, conspiratorial claims about the killings being staged as part of a larger Democratic agenda. In the left-leaning group, some anger was directed at the “hypocrisy of pro-life activists who are unable to address gun-related deaths in this country,” the researchers wrote.
Both sides engage in finger-pointing more than policy debates
It’s that persistent tendency in both groups to talk past each other and to stay laser-focused on just about anything but gun policy that worries Blankenship, she explains.
Yes, her work suggests that “people have become more concerned about their wellbeing and the safety of their families,” she says, “and that gives me hope that maybe it’s what can tie these two groups together.” That said, both groups “are accusing each other of being the cause and the root of the problem,” she adds, “and people bring up unrelated problems, so the conversation is being derailed by cynicism and accusations.”
Whether that’s an improvement over thoughts and prayers is debatable.