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Charges shifted online opinion about George Zimmerman's guilt in Trayvon Martin case

Crimson Hexagon

Belief that George Zimmerman isn't guilty of a crime in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin is now a slight majority among commenters expressing a clear opinion on his culpability.

Updated at 1:07 p.m. ET: As soon as George Zimmerman was formally charged last week in the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, public opinion began shifting online, and for much of this week, a slight majority of those expressing an opinion indicated they believed he probably wasn't guilty of violating Florida law, according to msnbc.com's computer-assisted analysis of 2.6 million Internet postings.

M. Alex Johnson

M. Alex Johnson is a reporter for msnbc.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Zimmerman, 28, appeared in court Friday on charges of second-degree murder for shooting and killing Martin, 17, on Feb. 26 in the gated community of Sanford in South Florida. Bond was set at $150,000.

The findings are best read as a snapshot of how the lodging of charges influenced public opinion online. As it has several times since Feb. 26, opinion began shifting again after the bond hearing, and a small majority of Friday's commentary indicated a belief that Zimmerman is, in fact, guilty.

The long delay in an arrest or charges, even though Zimmerman admitted shooting Martin, led to protests across the nation and an emotionally charged debate about race and self-defense laws. Martin was black; Zimmerman is the son of a white father and a Hispanic mother.

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Although the case first drew national attention on March 8, when CBS News aired an interview with Martin's parents — who alleged that their son had been racially profiled and demanded that Zimmerman be arrested — it didn't explode on social media until March 16, when audio of 911 calls from the scene was published.

The msnbc.com analysis of online forum posts, Facebook posts and Twitter messages since the shooting indicates a striking willingness among commenters to strongly sympathize with the Martin family while at the same time remaining open to the possibility that Zimmerman — who claims he shot Martin in self-defense — may not have committed a crime.

(The analysis, which runs Feb. 26 though Thursday, uses a tool called ForSight, a natural-language data platform developed by Crimson Hexagon Inc., which is used by many media and research organizations to gauge public opinion in new media, including the Pew Research Center. For this type of sentiment analysis, Crimson Hexagon reports a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points among the self-selected social media audience. Click here for a detailed explanation.)

Since March 8, support and sympathy for the Martin family have consistently been noted in 80 percent to 85 percent of online comments about the case. For long stretches during that time, however, a majority of those who expressed a clear opinion have argued that while Zimmerman was wrong, he hadn't actually broken the law.

One of those periods extended from March 14, after Sanford Police Chief Billy Lee said there was no evidence to dispute Zimmerman's claim of self-defense, until March 29, when ABC News published police surveillance video taken the night Martin was shot. The raw video appeared to show no blood or bruises on Zimmerman, seemingly contradicting initial police reports that officers found him bleeding from the back of his head and his nose.

That video sharply reversed online opinion: On March 27, 63 percent of commenters who expressed a clear opinion on Zimmerman's culpability believed he wasn't guilty of a crime. Two days later, after the ABC broadcast, 67 percent believed that he was:


That majority held — at a lower level ranging from 51 percent to 57 percent — even after enhanced footage of the police video was released April 2, appearing to show a possible injury to the back of Zimmerman's head.

Until Zimmerman was taken into custody on April 11 and charged with second-degree murder, much of the heavy social media traffic consisted of demands for his arrest. Afterward, with those demands having been met and with Zimmerman's having hired a new attorney who made it clear that he wasn't inclined to discuss the case in public, online comment on the case plummeted by 95 percent:

Much of this smaller discussion has settled on a debate over the complications of Florida's criminal statute 776  on the justifiable use of deadly force, popularly known as the Stand Your Ground law. The statute places the burden on prosecutors to disprove a defendant's claim that deadly force was justified because of fear of imminent death or serious injury.

"The thing is, the trial probably won't be very much about the racial aspect," a commenter called Hindsight posted Wednesday on TheBump.com. "It will be about what happened during/after that silence on the 911 tape and whether or not the state can prove that Zimmerman had no cause to feel threatened or that the shooting didn't go down the way Zimmerman claimed."


Majority belief in Zimmerman's guilt held relatively steady — between 50 percent and 58 percent — during the week before he was arrested. Almost immediately afterward, though, it began swinging back toward a belief that Zimmerman hadn't, strictly speaking, committed a crime. On Tuesday — after Reuters reported that Zimmerman's neighbors saw him with bandages on his head and nose the day after Martin was killed — a majority of the comments expressing an opinion indicated a belief that he might not be guilty:

"The mere fact that we don't know who started the fight leaves room for speculation that you can't prove beyond reasonable doubt it wasn't self defence IMO," a commenter called Cycl1 posted this week on CycloneFanatic.com, a forum for alumni of Iowa State University:


It's important to note that throughout the entire case, general public sympathy has strongly been on the Martins' side, even among most of those who argue that Zimmerman may not have committed a crime.

Since the beginning, 80 percent to 85 percent of commentary has included some expression of sympathy — with two exceptions:

• On March 23, when President Barack Obama told reporters that he was paying attention to the case — saying, "If I had a son he'd look like Trayvon" — commentary from Obama opponents dropped support for the Martins to 78 percent.


• On April 11, when Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder, expressions of support for the Martins dropped sharply — to 60 percent — as discussion turned to the arrest and the details of the charging documents.

In both cases, support returned above 80 percent the next day, where it has remained.

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