What Does Race Have to Do With Our Social Media Conversations?

A new study shows race affects both what we see and what we post on social media.

By Alain StephensAugust 16, 2016 11:37 am| ,

Americans use social media for a variety of reasons – to stay connected to family and friends, to share something funny, and increasingly, to get news and express political opinions.

Now, a new study from the Pew Research Center suggests that the way that Americans use and consume social media is closely tied to race. It found that there’s a significant difference between the way that black and white adults use social media when it comes to race-based content. Black social media users were about twice as likely as their white counterparts to say that the content they see on social networks is race-related. A similar gap appeared when asked about their own posting habits.

Monica Anderson, the lead author of the study, says that the study is an off-shoot of another study earlier this year about how aware Americans are of the Black Lives Matter movement. She says that the results of that research got her interested in other racial trends on social media.

“We saw that the connection between (the Black Lives Matter) organization and what goes on on social media is, of course, very much involved,” Anderson says. “From that, we wanted to take a look at the general conversation about race that’s on social media.”

She says there were “striking differences” in social media usage. Sixty-eight percent of black social media users said at least some of the content they saw on their social media feeds were about race or race relations, versus 35 percent of whites. She says that those statistics reflect the reality of race conversations in the offline realm as well.

“The idea that what we do in our everyday lives – what we talk about at our dinner tables, at the water cooler – is completely different from what we do online is not true,” Anderson says. “What we see in the offline world, for example, we also surveyed people about how often they talked to their friends and family about race, and we see big gaps between blacks and whites.”

Anderson says another trend they noticed was that race-related conversations could change quickly based on news events – for example, in the immediate wake of the shooting of police officers in Dallas, there was a spike in negativity towards the Black Lives Matter movement.

“In that sense, what we’re seeing is that the conversation, it can occur quickly, it can often change in tenor, and I think that’s something we would like to study more,” she says. “It’s something that I think really brings kind of an interesting component to what conversations can happen online.”

Post by Alexandra Hart.