How Your Race Determines What’s On Your Twitter Feed

Filter bubbles, it turns out, are also racial bubbles

Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Aug 15, 2016 at 2:54 PM ET

While “Black Twitter” roars with social activism, hashtag campaigns, and general discussions of race’s role in American life, new research shows just how quiet and oblivious the rest of the country can be on the topic.

A new report from Pew Research Center finds that the way that we see and share content relating to race on social media is heavily influenced by (surprise, surprise) our own race. The data harkens to another recent report that finds the vast majority of white Americans have entirely white social networks. Black social media users are, by and large, more likely to both see and share content relating to U.S. race relations on social media than white social media users. This held true even for black social media users that say they rarely or never discuss race in their daily lives.

While two-thirds of black social media users state that some or most of the posts they see on social media address race, only 35 percent of white social media users encountered race-related content at this rate.

When it comes to posting and sharing content relating to race, the same trends could be seen. While 60 percent of social media users state that they “never” use these platforms to address race or race relations, over a quarter of black respondents said that they do so at least some of the time, compared to 20 percent of Hispanic users and 8 percent of white users.

Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms have played a major role in the rise of the multi-chapter Black Lives Matter movement, which itself was spawned via a hashtag. According to Pew, #BlackLivesMatter (now tweeted over 11.8 million times) is the third most used “social-issue” hashtag in Twitter history, and #Ferguson is the first. Not that all discussion surrounding race tied to events like the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, M.O., are inherently indicative of productive conversation. In 2014, Vocativ found that Twitter exploded with racist epithets following the Grand Jury decision to not indict Darren Wilson, the police officer responsible. Pew also found that 11 percent of the time, “#BlackLivesMatter” was used in tweets critical of the movement.

More White Supremacists Talk Of ‘Race War’ After Dallas Police Shootings

The creation of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, used to signify broader discussions of race than specific incidents 15 percent of the time, has opened the door to countless other social media campaigns specifically focused on race relations and the reality of living as a black person in America. Hence the emergence of #BlackWomenEqualPay, #BlackOutDay, #BeingMaryJane…or hashtags derived from the names of any one of dozens of black citizens killed by police officers, an occurrence so disturbingly common that it has been reduced to something of a social media trope.


Even still, race remains a topic that many shy from discussing online. In reviewing 500 million publicly available tweets from January 2015 to April 2016, Pew discovered that only 0.04 percent of all tweets mentioned race. The majority of these could be directly tied to newsworthy events like the racially-motivated mass shooting at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., and Kendrick Lamar’s provocative (and controversial) performance at the 2016 Grammy Awards.