Social Media Reflects Racial Divide

While concerns about social media “echo chambers” are well established, including the possibility that Americans are receiving a narrower range of news and opinion selected on largely ideological grounds, it turns out that a similar, overlapping phenomenon may be occurring in online discussions of race, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center.

Pew found that social media users of different races are exposed to different amounts of online discussion of racial issues, with African-American social media users seeing much more race-related content than their white counterparts. In fact, over two-thirds of black social media users (68%) said that some or most of the posts they see online are race-related, compared to just 35% of white users. Within these figures, 24% of black users specified that “most” posts they see are about race, versus just 6% of whites. Hispanics were in between, with 54% saying some or most of the content they see concerns race, with 14% saying that most does.

Black social media users are also far more likely to post content about race themselves: 27% said some or most of what they share online concerns race, compared to just 8% of whites and 20% of Hispanics. Meanwhile 67% of white users say they never post or share content about race, versus 42% of black users and 49% of Hispanics.

Not surprisingly, current events are a major driver of online discussions about race, with 60% of tweets mentioning race also referring to news, including topics like the 2016 election, police or judicial system, and celebrities and entertainment. 

While these findings might be interpreted as supporting a simple model of causation -- for example, that black social media users see more content about race because it is of greater interest to them and thus influences who they follow on Twitter -- that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, among black survey respondents who said they rarely or never discuss race online or in person, over half (55%) still said most or some of the content they see online concerns race. That compares to just 23% of white social media users who rarely or never talk about race in person or online.

The reasons for that apparent disparity are unclear, but there are a number of possible explanations: for example, it’s possible  that black social media users may simply be more likely to interpret a particular piece of content as concerning race than their white counterparts, even if they don’t discuss race frequently themselves. Whatever the exact reasons, however, the Pew study leaves little doubt that Americans of different races often inhabit different worlds -- online as well as off.

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