COEUR d’ALENE — Phones started ringing in the Coeur d’Alene Press newsroom early Thursday and they haven’t let up since.
It began within hours of publication of “Black like me?” The Press story broke the news that Rachel Dolezal, a former Coeur d’Alene human rights activist who rose to prominent positions in Spokane as a self-described black woman, is white, according to her parents and her birth certificate.
In less than 24 hours the story went global and captured the attention of the world’s largest media outlets.
National and international news organizations quickly began to request interviews from The Press reporters who investigated and first reported the story.
Calls and email messages came in from producers and reporters from Fox News, CNN, the BBC, Canada’s national public radio station and BuzzFeed. They all wanted to know how Dolezal could rise to such heights masquerading as an African-American woman until Thursday, when The Press, and later that day, KXLY News in Spokane, reported evidence disputing Dolezal’s ethnicity and other claims about her life as a black woman.
Terms like “trending on Twitter” and “gone viral” took on a new meaning for Press news staff.
Users on social media networks like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter began posting their comments about the story using the hashtag #RachelDolezal. Hashtags are labels users include in their social media messages that make the messages searchable and allow users to quickly find topics being “discussed.”
Messages tagged #RachelDolezal quickly became among the most popular being posted throughout the nation. It was in the No. 1 position worldwide for Twitter trending topics for much of the day on Friday. A related hashtag, #AskRachel, was trending as the third most popular Twitter thread about Dolezal.
Jamie Lynn Morgan, a social media expert in Coeur d’Alene, said trending worldwide on Twitter is incredibly hard to do.
“It truly is amazing. It’s an incredible accomplishment,” she said in an interview Friday, explaining that Jimmy Fallon from the Tonight Show has a segment he calls Twitter Tuesdays which usually trends nationally but occasionally will trend worldwide. However, even with his huge Twitter following Fallon has only managed to trend in the top spot worldwide a couple of times.
Morgan explained that Twitter uses a unique algorithm that monitors the hashtag symbols to determine what people are talking about on the social media service.
She said in order for a hashtag topic to start trending there must be a certain number of people on the Twitter platform using the hashtag to tweet a certain number of comments within a certain timeframe.
For instance, she said, between midnight and 6 a.m. there must be 500 people tweeting 1,200 comments using the same hashtag to even begin trending in the top 10 topics in any given geographic market.
Those benchmark ratios increase as the day progresses with 6 p.m. to midnight being the hardest time slot in which to achieve a trending topic. In order to trend in that timeframe, Morgan said 922 people have to be tweeting comments using the same hashtag 1,900 times.
She said it’s then a matter of which hashtags in the top 10 trending topic are getting the most tweets.
“The average number of tweets per day worldwide are 1.9 million with 631,737 unique users,” she said, adding that is 20,000 tweets a minute. “It takes a huge number just to get on the trending list. It’s amazing how it works.”
As of Friday afternoon #RachelDolezal had over 340,000 tweets, which is roughly 15 percent of all the daily tweets in the Twitter world.
Morgan said trending on Twitter is just the beginning of a news story going viral.
She said news stories are almost always picked up by the major media outlets when they start trending.
“Obviously the most controversial stories get picked up first,” she said, explaining that all of the major media outlets now have people dedicated to monitoring the social media sites to watch for trending news.
By Saturday, it was hard to find a news or pop culture site in the U.S. where the Dolezal story wasn’t being reported. News agencies throughout Europe and other continents also carried versions of the report.
Morgan said the social media miners usually watch commenters who have large numbers of followers and when they start tweeting comments under a certain trending hashtag, the media outlet jumps on the story.
“Then the number of comments start compounding,” she said, adding that is likely to happen with the Dolezal story once the major media outlets start to publish their stories on the subject.
She said the national and international media attention is just beginning to focus on the Dolezal story.
“It really is incredible how fast this story took off,” Morgan said. “It’s almost unheard of.”
Staff writer Maureen Dolan contributed to this report.