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On Social Media, As In Life, White People Are Way Less Likely To Talk About Race

Black social media users are nearly twice as likely to see posts about race and race relations as whites, according to a report from Pew.
Jacquelyn Martin

Why aren't more of my white friends on Facebook talking about this stuff?

We heard that refrain a lot last month after video recordings of the fatal police shootings of two black men, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, went viral, followed by deadly attacks on police officers in Dallas and in Baton Rouge, inspiring lots of conversation about the central role of race in these killings.

New data from the Pew Research Center strongly suggests that folks weren't just imagining things — white people really are much less likely to talk about racial issues on social media:

In a survey released Monday about the way people talk about race on social media, Pew found that nearly 70 percent of black folks on social media said that at least some of the content they encountered on social networking sites was in some way related to race — a number nearly twice as high as the number of white people who said the same.

Furthermore, 1 in 4 black respondents told Pew that most of the content they see on social media is about race, while about 1 in 5 Latinos said the same. That's compared to just 6 percent of white folks.

About 30 percent of black people say at least some of what they post pertains to race. Only about 8 percent of whites say the same; 70 percent of white people say they never post anything related to race. (The Pew researchers allowed respondents to determine for themselves what made something on social media qualify as race-related.)

Monica Anderson, the lead researcher on the Pew Study, pointed to other surveys showing similar gaps in conversations about race in real-life settings. White people say they are also less likely to discuss issues of race offline. "We asked people in another survey how often they talk about racial inequality in their everyday lives," she said. "For blacks, about 40 percent said they did so often. For whites, that's about 18 percent."

In another study, black folks told Pew they were nearly twice as likely as whites to say they changed their social media profile pictures to support a cause. "There's definitely something going on, and a kind of different experience that blacks are having with social media that whites aren't," she said.

Anderson also pointed me to a Pew study about the way people talk about thorny issues on social media. In that survey, nearly twice as many people said they were willing to talk about a politically thorny news story in person — in that study, it was the Edward Snowden-NSA affair — than they were to discuss it on social media. Respondents also told Pew that they were more willing to share their opinions on social networking sites if they thought their audience agreed with them. Social media, it seems, is a space where many people feel particularly uncomfortable conversing about things they think might elicit a lot of disagreement.

In many ways, the Pew findings aren't that surprising: People's social media lives tend to reflect their offline ones. In 2014, Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute mapped out the friend circles of respondents in their American Values Survey and found that white people were substantially less likely than people of color to have friends of another race. Fully 75 percent of white people had entirely white friend circles.

That kind of social segregation, Jones wrote in The Atlantic, is a major reason people of color and white people have had such different reactions to stories about race in the news in recent years. "There are myriad reasons for this divergence, from political ideologies ... to fears based in racist stereotypes of young black men," Jones wrote. "But the chief obstacle to having an intelligent, or even intelligible, conversation across the racial divide is that on average white Americans live in communities that face far fewer problems and talk mostly to other white people."

Pew also combed through activity on Twitter over a 15-month period (Jan 1, 2015, through March 31, 2016) to see how often people discussed race on that platform. During that span, there were nearly a billion tweets about race— or about 2.1 million tweets about race a day. Still, the researchers noted that tweets about race made up a tiny, tiny sliver of the total tweets on the platform — less than half of 1 percent. (I asked Anderson how they sifted through nearly a billion tweets. "Very slowly," she said.)

Most tweets dealing with race were prompted by something in the news, the researchers found — the church shooting in Charleston, S.C., or the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. About 10 percent of tweets about race were related to the 2016 presidential election — more than the number of tweets about race and the criminal justice system (7 percent).

But Anderson said most tweets about race were related to the kind of pop culture moments that the Twitterverse tends to coalesce around. "A majority of the times that people are talking about race explicitly seems to be around big events that already can get people clustered together," Anderson said, citing the Grammys or the Oscars as examples.

Anderson also noted that about 40 percent of those daily race-related tweets were not directly tied to a news event. They were people "talking about their everyday experiences, or people talking about discrimination in general, or people talking about race but not specifically about discrimination," she said. "There's really a wide array of conversation, and it's going on all the time."

And sometimes, "the news about race" and "social media conversation about race" can be inextricable from each other, as in the case of #BlackLivesMatter, which began its life as a Twitter hashtag before becoming a discrete social movement. As part of the study, Pew looked at how people used that hashtag on Twitter over a roughly three-year period. About 40 percent used it to support the movement, while about 11 percent did so to criticize.

But that changed dramatically in July, when that hashtag was being used more than ever before — nearly 5 million people discussed #BlackLivesMatter in the first two weeks of July. And at first, it was mostly in support. From July 5 through July 7, following the aforementioned police shootings of Sterling and Castile, the overwhelming majority of tweets about #BlackLivesMatter — 90 percent — were people allying themselves with the movement.

Then came the killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. "The tone became a lot more negative toward the Black Lives Matter movement," Anderson said. By July 17, two-thirds of the tweets with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag opposed the movement, while just 26 percent were positive. Many of the people using the hashtag blamed the movement for the attacks on police.

And while the tone for #BlackLivesMatter was changing over that period, there were record spikes in the number of people tweeting with the hashtags #AllLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter — both of which were formed in ideological opposition to #BlackLivesMatter. Anderson told me that before the shootings of Dallas police officers on July 7, many people using #BlueLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter hashtags were actually doing so in order to criticize them. After the shootings in Dallas, though, #AllLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter were being tweeted primarily by people sympathetic to them.

Anderson couldn't say whether those shifts in how people were discussing #BlackLivesMatter, #AllLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter persisted as the news cycle moved on; Pew looked only at their use for a period that ended on July 17. But she says that even at the height of the use of #BlueLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter over that period, they were still far outpaced by the number of tweets with #BlackLivesMatter:

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.
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