In a new survey entitled “Social Media Conversations about Race,” the Pew Research Center follows the ways social media users discuss race, especially as related to the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. The study finds significant differences in the way black and white adults share race-related content. In addition, events of racialized violence, including in Baltimore, Charleston, and Dallas, initiate conversations about race on social media.

There are large gaps between black and white people in how often they view racial content on social media. The study finds that 68% of black social media users surveyed say that at least some of the posts they see on social media are race related. White social media users were only half as likely (35%) as black social media users to see race related content on social media.

Regarding personal posts and shares, only 8% of white social media users post race related content, compared to 28% of black social media users. Around 67% of white social media users say nothing they share or post is related to race.

These findings suggest that black and white social media users are having two different experiences on social media. It seems that for black social media users, it is possible for the topic of race to permeate everyday discussion and content, and for white social media users, it seems race related topics rarely cross their path.

The Pew study also examines how social media users on Twitter discussed race from January 2016 to March 1, 2016. In an analysis of 995 million tweets deemed “race related,” the study found that discussions about race on Twitter typically followed a major news event, including incidents of racial violence, like the Charleston shooting, and major race-related entertainment stories, such as Kendrick Lamar’s 2016 Grammy performance.

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The study also examined use of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, finding that use of the hashtag spiked to over 1 million tweets in response to the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. In addition, the use of the #AllLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter hashtags also spiked during this period, as criticisms of the movement and the hashtag. The #AllLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter tweets increased especially after the murders of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

[Related: Alton Sterling Killed While Pinned to the Ground By Louisiana Cops]

This data suggests that many people are having critical conversations concerning race and police brutality on Twitter; yet, it also seems that people on either side of the issue may be talking past each other. No movement or real discussions shall occur without criticism, yet it often seems to me that those posting #AllLivesMatter are diametrically opposed to conceding that #BlackLivesMatterespecially when #AllLivesMatter tweets occur in response to the police shooting of black people.

This study is a useful contribution to research on the analysis of social media use and discussion of race in the United States. Further studies might include a wider definition of tweets defined as “race-related,” especially in light of this election cycle, where anti-Muslim and anti-Hispanic sentiment are key issues and rhetoric in the presidential race.


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