A new Pew Research Center report out today is a reminder of the huge role social media plays as a platform for discussion about race and racism in America, with users both reacting to and inspiring headlines.
“Social Media Conversations About Race” includes this list of the “10 most active days on Twitter discussing race” from January 1, 2015, to March 31, 2016:
Headlines inspire tweets, and tweets inspire headlines
This won’t be news to anyone who regularly uses Twitter. Many of the top race-related Twitter moments surrounded breaking news events. Number one: the June 2015 massacre at a historic black church by a white supremacist that left nine dead. Reactions to developments surrounding the cases of Freddie Gray, a black man who was killed during an arrest in Baltimore, and Sandra Bland, a black woman who died in police custody in Texas, also inspired a lot of dialogue.
Awards shows or “racial controversies more broadly,” as Pew put it, filled out the list. That’s a reminder that social media users can make news — like, for example, the “controversy over the lack of minority Oscar nominees,” whose origin was Twitter — as well as respond to it.
What makes a tweet “about race”?
For the purposes of the study, a tweet was deemed to be “about race” if it included an explicit reference to black people, white people, or the concept of race in general. Unfortunately, that excluded references to Asians, Latinos, or other racial or ethnic groups.
This framing both reflects and reaffirms the popular misconception that discussions about race in America are about black and white people exclusively.
A new consensus about social media’s role in addressing injustice?
You don’t really hear the term “hashtag activism” — a disparaging phrase suggesting that having social media conversations about racism is a lazy alternative to “real” work — much anymore. Perhaps that’s because of an understanding is solidifying that Twitter and Facebook are more than just frivolous: They can serve to spread breaking news, raise awareness of larger issues, and guide media coverage of individual incidents and larger concerns.
This thinking is reflected in Pew’s report, where authors Monica Anderson and Paul Hitlin write:
Americans are increasingly turning to social media for news and political information and to encourage others to get involved with a cause or movement. Social media also can serve as an important venue where groups with common interests come together to share ideas and information. And at times, Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites can help users bring greater attention to issues through their collective voice.
In recent years, these platforms have provided new arenas for national conversations about race and racial inequality. Some researchers and activists credit social media – in particular, Black Twitter – with propelling racially focused issues to greater national attention.
I wrote in 2015 arguing that Twitter played an important role in making racialized police violence the topic of sustained national media attention after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, that media organizations increasingly rely on social media to both deliver content to their audiences and deliver audiences to their content.
The most obvious way to write a story that will be shared widely on social media is to choose a topic that social media users are already interested in. And social media users are disproportionately black. The result of this cycle is that journalists suddenly regard Black Twitter as a credible and important story generator — and audience for those stories once they're written.
It’s no surprise that this list of top “social media conversations about race” hews closely to the list of general conversations about race that Americans on and off Twitter will remember.