Social media images and videos depicting police killings of Black people can both compel accountability where it might otherwise be lacking and traumatize those who see them. A group of researchers from Wake Forest University is studying how these videos impact Black millennials, and they presented their in-progress research today (March 16) during “The Revolution Will Be Livestreamed: Justice & Law,” a panel at South by Southwest (SxSW).

“Even though we’re pretty early in our work, one thing that we are starting to find is that this generation seems to be experiencing collective trauma from constantly viewing these images of Black death and brutality on social media,” communications scholar Dr. Sherri Williams told Colorlines after the panel. “This is a group that has high adoption of mobile devices and immersion in social media spaces, and they do tend to have a radicalized experience on social media. These images are really causing them to rethink how they navigate through the world.”

Williams’ observation draws from findings cited during the panel with her colleagues, Wake Forest University Office of Diversity and Inclusion’s J. Matthew Williams and undergraduate student Sydni Williams (none of the panel participants are related). For instance, a 2016 Pew Research Center report says that 68 percent of Black social media users say that some or most of the posts they see are about race-related topics, compared to 35 percent of White users. In addition, a Nielsen report from October indicates that 55 percent of Black millennials spend at least an hour on social media platforms—the same platforms that are used to share police violence like the shooting that killed Philando Castile.  

Noting this demographic’s key role in promoting hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter, the researchers began surveying Black 18-to-24-year-olds and their feelings about seeing and sharing these videos online. Respondents quoted in their presentation described feeling torn between wanting to share the videos and wanting to avoid them to protect their mental health. They also said that they personally identify with Black people killed by law enforcement officers.

The researchers were joined on stage by Lynessa Williams, a public relations professional who spoke about issues of ownership for these violent images. 

The team plans to publish its research in a peer-reviewed journal, and Williams mentioned possibly turning their discoveries into a book. 

Culture Reporter Sameer Rao is in Austin this week covering race- and people of color-focused panels and events at South by Southwest. Check back for more posts this week.