It might feel like every conversation about race conducted via social media instantaneously devolves into a feeding ground for racist trolls, but a new study from Pew Research Center says that the discourse created by hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter have actually been successful in forcing the nation to reckon with race-related issues.
Released yesterday (August 15), “Social Media Conversations About Race” examines how “hashtag activism” impacts the social landscape—and how that impact differs among Black and White social media users. To do this, researchers combined a phone survey of 3,769 adults with a massive analysis of tweets.
A look at publicly available tweets posted between January 1, 2015 and March 31, 2016 uncovered around 995 million tweets about race—that’s an average of 2.1 million per day. With a total of 500 million tweets per day, race accounted for 0.04 percent of all posts. Six in ten of those were connected to news events of the day, like the massacre at Mother Emanuel.
Over all, the analysis found that race talk on social media is intersectional, showing how issues are related to everything from pop culture to feminism. It also explored who is posting—and reading—about race. Nearly seven in ten (68 percent) of Black users surveyed say that at least some of the posts they see in their feeds are about race, versus 54 percent of Latinxs and 35 percent of Whites. When it comes to actually posting and sharing items, 27 percent of Blacks report that at least some of their posts center around race, versus 20 percent of Latinxs and 8 percent of Whites.
Researchers also conducted a case study on the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. They found that it was used about 12 million times from July 12, 2013, to March 31, 2016. About 40 percent of the time, it was used in solidarity with the movement that spawned from the use of the hashtag. In 11 percent of appearances, it was being used negatively. But that changed after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police officers from Baton Rouge and St. Anthony (Minn.), respectively, which was closely followed by the shooting deaths of five police officers in Dallas. From the report:
This time period—July 5-17, 2016—had the hashtags of #BlackLivesMatter, #AllLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter used more often than any other time since the hashtags began appearing on Twitter in July 2013. And almost overnight, the tone of the online conversation around #BlackLivesMatter shifted following the attacks on law enforcement. There was a dramatic rise in the share of tweets criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement using that hashtag in our July analysis and a drop in the share of tweets that supported the movement.
In general, the more people talk about race in their offline lives, the more likely they are to interact with the topic online. But across the board, Blacks engage with the topic more often than their White counterparts:
The tweet analysis also uncovered the top days when race was discussed online, each of which was tied to a major news event:
Researchers also examined how pervasive the #AllLivesMatter hashtag is, compared to #BlackLivesMatter, and found that the pro-Black message has been tweeted eight times more often:
Read the full report here.