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Twitter and the Bill Cosby Scandal

The final speaker in this AoIR 2016 session is Karen Assmann, whose interest is in the social media coverage of the Bill Cosby scandal. Allegations about Cosby's behaviour had been circulating since the mid-2000s, but these were not widely investigated by journalists at the time (and the court material at the time was sealed after an out-of-court settlement); some journalists have questioned whether they have failed in pursuing this story.

The story blew up again in 2015 after a video discussing the allegations went viral on Twitter, and was picked up on Buzzfeed; eventually the UK's Daily Mail covered the story in some more detail and in October and November 2015 more substantial coverage both online and offline, and both in traditional and new news media finally emerged. Journalists reflected at the time that social media, as well as non-traditional news sites such as Buzzfeed, played an important role in finally generating attention to this story.

Cosby himself also engaged with this, explicitly challenging the Twittersphere to "meme me" – which resulted in a substantial response under hashtags such as #BillCosby and #CosbyMeme. This peaked around 10 November, with a number of particularly prominent, widely retweeted posts.

In her analysis Karen focussed on 17 November as representing a strong post-peak period. Sarcastic and negative, comment tweets gained especially strong engagement, and some prominent black Twitter users such as @elonjames emerged as key participants here. A network analysis of their follower networks points to a range of clusters involved here. The #EmptyChair hashtag emerged as another tool for continuing the discussion about this scandal.

Overall this was not driven by visual memes, then, but by discussion and commentary in specific networks. @elonjames connected this to the network of mainstream media, and provided an opportunity for black Twitter users to break solidarity with Cosby if they had not done so yet.