Twitter Fingers and Echo Chambers: Exploring Expressions and Experiences of Online Racism Using Twitter

Abstract

Social media sites, such as Twitter, represent a growing setting in which racism and related stress may manifest. The aims of this exploratory qualitative study were to (1) understand the essence of Twitter users’ lived experience with and response to content about race and racism on the platform, and (2) explore their perceptions of how discussions about race and racism on Twitter may impact health and well-being. We conducted six focus groups and four interviews with adult Twitter users (n = 27) from Berkeley, California, and Greenville, South Carolina. We managed the data with NVivo and conducted an interpretative phenomenological analysis to identify themes. Participants described Twitter content as displaying both overt and subtle expressions of racism, particularly for Black and Latinx people, and serving as an echo chamber where similar viewpoints are amplified. Participants described how Twitter users may feel emboldened to type offensive tweets based on the perception of anonymity, and that these tweets were sometimes met with community disapproval used to provide a collective calibration to restore the social norms of the online space. Participants perceived harmful mental, emotional, and physical health impacts of exposure to racist content on Twitter. Our participants responded to harmful race-related content through blocking users and following others in order to curate their Twitter feeds, actively engaging in addressing content, and reducing Twitter use. Twitter users reported witnessing racism on the platform and have found ways to protect their mental health and cope with discussions of race and racism in this social media environment.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Data Availability

Focus group and interviews audio-recordings and transcripts are housed with the corresponding and senior authors.

References

  1. 1.

    Williams DR, Cooper LA. Reducing racial inequities in health: using what we already know to take action. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019;16(4):606.

    PubMed Central  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Paradies Y, Ben J, Denson N, Elias A, Priest N, Pieterse A, et al. Racism as a determinant of health: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2015;10(9):e0138511.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Phelan JC, Link BG. Is racism a fundamental cause of inequalities in health? Annu Rev Sociol. 2015;41:311–30.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Williams DR. Race and health: basic questions, emerging directions. Ann Epidemiol. 1997;7(5):322–33.

    CAS  PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    Bailey ZD, Krieger N, Agénor M, Graves J, Linos N, Bassett MT. Structural racism and health inequities in the USA: evidence and interventions. Lancet. 2017;389(10077):1453–63.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Williams DR, Lawrence JA, Davis BA, Vu C. Understanding how discrimination can affect health. Health Serv Res. 2019;54:1374–88.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Miller MJ, Keum BT, Thai CJ, Lu Y, Truong NN, Huh GA, et al. Practice recommendations for addressing racism: a content analysis of the counseling psychology literature. J Couns Psychol. 2018;65(6):669–80.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Thompson CE, Neville HA. Racism, mental health, and mental health practice. Couns Psychol. 1999;27(2):155–223.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Williams DR, Lawrence JA, Davis BA. Racism and health: evidence and needed research. Annu Rev Public Health. 2019;40:105–25.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Pascoe EA, Smart RL. Perceived discrimination and health: a meta-analytic review. Psychol Bull. 2009;135(4):531–54.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Forrester S, Jacobs D, Zmora R, Schreiner P, Roger V, Kiefe CI. Racial differences in weathering and its associations with psychosocial stress: the CARDIA study. SSM-Population Health. 2019;7:100319.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Goosby BJ, Cheadle JE, Mitchell C. Stress-related biosocial mechanisms of discrimination and African American health inequities. Annu Rev Sociol. 2018;44:319–40.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Geronimus AT, Hicken M, Keene D, Bound J. “Weathering” and age patterns of allostatic load scores among blacks and whites in the United States. Am J Public Health. 2006;96(5):826–33.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Jones CP. Levels of racism: a theoretic framework and a gardener’s tale. Am J Public Health. 2000;90(8):1212–5.

    CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Harrell SP. A multidimensional conceptualization of racism-related stress: implications for the well-being of people of color. Am J Orthop. 2000;70(1):42–57.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Bor J, Venkataramani AS, Williams DR, Tsai AC. Police killings and their spillover effects on the mental health of black Americans: a population-based, quasi-experimental study. Lancet. 2018;392(10144):302–10.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Nuru-Jeter A, Dominguez TP, Hammond WP, Leu J, Skaff M, Egerter S, et al. “It’s the skin you’re in”: African-American women talk about their experiences of racism. An exploratory study to develop measures of racism for birth outcome studies. Matern Child Health J. 2009;13(1):29.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Kaiser KR, Kaiser DM, Kaiser RM, Rackham AM. Using social media to understand and guide the treatment of racist ideology. Glob J Guid Couns Sch Curr Perspect. 2018;8(1):38–49.

    Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Perrin A, Anderson M. Share of US adults using social media, including Facebook, is mostly unchanged since 2018. Pew Research Center 2019.

  20. 20.

    Mislove A, Lehmann S, Ahn Y-Y, Onnela J-P, Rosenquist JN. Understanding the demographics of Twitter users. In: Fifth international AAAI conference on weblogs and social media. 2011.

  21. 21.

    Ferrara E, Yang Z. Measuring emotional contagion in social media. PLoS One. 2015;10(11):e0142390.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Lin LY, Sidani JE, Shensa A, Radovic A, Miller E, Colditz JB, et al. Association between social media use and depression among US young adults. Depress Anxiety. 2016;33(4):323–31.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Umaña-Taylor AJ, Tynes BM, Toomey RB, Williams DR, Mitchell KJ. Latino adolescents’ perceived discrimination in online and offline settings: an examination of cultural risk and protective factors. Dev Psychol. 2015;51(1):87–100.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Keum BT, Miller MJ. Racism on the internet: conceptualization and recommendations for research. Psychol Violence. 2018;8(6):782–91.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Suler J. The online disinhibition effect. CyberPsychol Behav. 2004;7(3):321–6.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Bliuc A-M, Faulkner N, Jakubowicz A, McGarty C. Online networks of racial hate: a systematic review of 10 years of research on cyber-racism. Comput Hum Behav. 2018;87:75–86.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Nguyen TT, Criss S, Allen AM, Glymour MM, Phan L, Trevino R, et al. Pride, love, and twitter rants: combining machine learning and qualitative techniques to understand what our tweets reveal about race in the US. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019;16(10):1766.

    PubMed Central  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Nguyen TT, Meng H-W, Sandeep S, McCullough M, Yu W, Lau Y, et al. Twitter-derived measures of sentiment towards minorities (2015–2016) and associations with low birth weight and preterm birth in the United States. Comput Hum Behav. 2018;89:308–15.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Huang D, Huang Y, Adams N, Nguyen TT, Nguyen QC. Twitter-characterized sentiment towards racial/ethnic minorities and cardiovascular disease (CVD) outcomes. J Racial Ethn Heal Disparities 2020;1–13.

  30. 30.

    Daniels KP, Valdez Z, Chae DH, Allen AM. Direct and vicarious racial discrimination at three life stages and preterm labor: results from the African American Women’s Heart & Health Study. Matern Child Health J 2020;1–9.

  31. 31.

    Martz CD, Allen AM, Fuller-Rowell TE, Spears EC, Lim SS, Drenkard C, et al. Vicarious racism stress and disease activity: the Black women’s experiences living with lupus (BeWELL) study. J Racial Ethn Health Disparities. 2019;6(5):1044–51.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Smith JA, Osborn M. Interpretative phenomenological analysis as a useful methodology for research on the lived experience of pain. Br J Pain. 2015;9(1):41–2.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Davidsen AS. Phenomenological approaches in psychology and health sciences. Qual Res Psychol. 2013;10(3):318–39.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Elo S, Kääriäinen M, Kanste O, Pölkki T, Utriainen K, Kyngäs H. Qualitative content analysis: a focus on trustworthiness. SAGE Open. 2014;4(1):2158244014522633.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Maxwell JA. Qualitative research design: an interactive approach. Vol. 41. Sage publications; 2012.

  36. 36.

    Chohan UW, D’Souza A. A critical appraisal of the Twitterverse. Soc Media Crit Res Ser. 2020

  37. 37.

    Matamoros-Fernández A. Platformed racism: the mediation and circulation of an Australian race-based controversy on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Inf Commun Soc. 2017;20(6):930–46.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Ott BL. The age of Twitter: Donald J. Trump and the politics of debasement. Crit Stud Media Commun. 2017;34(1):59–68.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Du S, Gregory S. The echo chamber effect in Twitter: does community polarization increase? In: International Workshop on Complex Networks and their Applications. Springer; 2016. p. 373–8.

  40. 40.

    Colleoni E, Rozza A, Arvidsson A. Echo chamber or public sphere? Predicting political orientation and measuring political homophily in Twitter using big data. J Commun. 2014;64(2):317–32.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Conover MD, Ratkiewicz J, Francisco M, Gonçalves B, Menczer F, Flammini A. Political polarization on twitter. In: Fifth international AAAI conference on weblogs and social media. 2011.

  42. 42.

    Gillani N, Yuan A, Saveski M, Vosoughi S, Roy D. Me, my echo chamber, and I: introspection on social media polarization. In: Proceedings of the 2018 World Wide Web Conference. 2018. p. 823–31.

  43. 43.

    Sinnenberg L, Buttenheim AM, Padrez K, Mancheno C, Ungar L, Merchant RM. Twitter as a tool for health research: a systematic review. Am J Public Health. 2017;107(1):e1–8.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    English D, Lambert SF, Tynes BM, Bowleg L, Zea MC, Howard LC. Daily multidimensional racial discrimination among Black US American adolescents. J Appl Dev Psychol. 2020;66:101068.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    Stewart A, Schuschke J, Tynes B. Online racism: adjustment and protective factors among adolescents of color. In: Handbook of Children and Prejudice. Springer; 2019. p. 501–13.

  46. 46.

    Tynes BM, Giang MT, Williams DR, Thompson GN. Online racial discrimination and psychological adjustment among adolescents. J Adolesc Health. 2008;43(6):565–9.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    Brondolo E, Ver Halen NB, Pencille M, Beatty D, Contrada RJ. Coping with racism: a selective review of the literature and a theoretical and methodological critique. J Behav Med. 2009;32(1):64–88.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Krieger N, Sidney S. Racial discrimination and blood pressure: the CARDIA Study of young black and white adults. Am J Public Health. 1996;86(10):1370–8.

    CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    Plummer DL, Slane S. Patterns of coping in racially stressful situations. J Black Psychol. 1996;22(3):302–15.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    Forsyth J, Carter RT. The relationship between racial identity status attitudes, racism-related coping, and mental health among Black Americans. Cult Divers Ethn Minor Psychol. 2012;18(2):128–40.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. 51.

    Lazarus RS, Folkman S. Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer; 1984.

    Google Scholar 

  52. 52.

    Lee-Won RJ, White TN, Potocki B. The Black catalyst to tweet: the role of discrimination experience, group identification, and racial agency in Black Americans’ instrumental use of Twitter. Inf Commun Soc. 2018;21(8):1097–115.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. 53.

    Greenwood S, Perrin A, Duggan M. Social media update 2016. Pew Res Cent. 2016;11(2).

  54. 54.

    Carter ER, Murphy MC. Group-based differences in perceptions of racism: what counts, to whom, and why? Soc Personal Psychol Compass. 2015;9(6):269–80.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Funding

Research reported in this publication was financially supported by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R00MD012615 (Dr. Nguyen, T., PI) and the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute under Award Number F31HL151284 (Michaels, E., PI). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Shaniece Criss.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethics Approval (Include Appropriate Approvals or Waivers)

This study was approved by the University of California, San Francisco IRB (18-24593).

Consent to Participate (Include Appropriate Statements)

All study participants provided consent to participate in this study.

Consent for Publication (Include Appropriate Statements)

The authors consent to publication of this manuscript.

Additional information

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Criss, S., Michaels, E.K., Solomon, K. et al. Twitter Fingers and Echo Chambers: Exploring Expressions and Experiences of Online Racism Using Twitter. J. Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40615-020-00894-5

Download citation

Keywords

  • Twitter
  • Coping
  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Focus groups