Human Rights Campaign

Remember those red equals sign profile pictures that were everywhere during the Supreme Court's gay marriage oral arguments in March? Facebook researchers dove into the data of those pictures on Monday, and found one surprising area that particularly loved those pictures and their pro-gay rights message: Missoula, Montana.

Using machine modeling, Facebook employee Bogdan State produced the map below of the 2.77 million users who updated their profile pictures to that ubiquitous red-and-pink symbol from the Human Rights Campaign. Facebook was able to accurately distinguish the true equals sign from its parody cousins, and it then mapped the rate of adoption onto the U.S. In the map below, the darker areas are where more people adopted the symbol. Each sectioned area holds 100,000 people, and the adoption rate ranges from more than 4 percent at its darkest to less than 1 percent at its lightest.

There are some obvious takeaways: The sign was less popular in most of the South, and more popular in the Northeast and pockets of big cities. One area that stands out is in Western Montana, surrounded by lighter colors in Big Sky country. Zoomed in:

That dark sliver is the population area surrounding Missoula, Montana, an area of heavy gay rights activism (on Facebook at least). Missoula is home to the University of Montana, attended by 15,000 students in a town of 67,000. President Obama win 58 percent of the vote in the county in 2012. Facebook's rougher analysis of the equals sign trend back in March found college towns to be the biggest adopters of the profile picture.

What makes Missoula so interesting, though, is it's thorough support of gay marriage in a state that has a constitutional ban against it. The city of Missoula was one of 25 municipalities to receive a perfect 100 score from the Human Rights Campaign in its annual Municipal Equality Index [PDF] report, which singled out Missoula gay rights success specifically in a section: "This highlights the momentum for municipal equality that has been sweeping through small cities across the country," the report read. That perfect 100 is explained in a two-part story in The Missoulian in late June identified the city as the first in the state to make it illegal for employers to fire LGBT employees. The city also created a registry for domestic partnerships, despite the state law requiring marriage to be only between a man and a woman. 

Because of its status in the middle of Republican country, a Missoulian changing a profile picture to the equals signs might make a bigger statement than in, say, New York City.

When Facebook made a less exact map using county-wide data back in late March, it found that the counties holding big metropolitan cities had only "modest" adoption of the red profile pictures, including Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City. The new maps, which were based on the more accurate micro-level data using the Census's Public Use Microdata Areas [PDF], show that within those cities, there was a wide range of adoption rates for those pro-gay rights profile pictures. Take the area around New York City, for example.

Here, we see areas with plenty of profile picture support in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. But outer areas of Staten Island, the Bronx, and New Jersey show lighter-colors of low adoption rates. People of like minds and beliefs live near each other even within big metropolitan areas, and similar differences were seen in Los Angeles and Chicago, as well. 

However, there was one major metro area that, upon closer look, was far more consistent in adopting the equals sign on Facebook: San Francisco.

(h/t Jared Keller)