Race, Racism & Social Networking Sites: What the Research Tells Us

I’ve been doing a series about what academic research on race and racism on the Internet.    The series continues today with a look at what researchers are finding about one the most talked about aspects of the popular Internet: Social Networking Sites.

(Creative Commons License Image source)

Social networking sites (SNS), such as Facebook and MySpace, are phenomenally popular and important to the field of Internet studies, (Boyd and Ellison, “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship,” JCMC, 2007, Vol.13(1):210-230).    According to a recent report, the top SNS is currently Facebook, with over 65 million unique visitors per month.  Facebook has displaced the former leader in the field, MySpace, which still currently gets about 58 million unique visitors per month.  These are staggeringly high numbers of people participating in these sites.    But what does this phenomenon have to do with race and racism?

(Source: Complete Pulse, 02/09/09)

White Flight? Perhaps the most talked about finding about race and SNS has to do with the move of whites from MySpace to Facebook.  Researcher danah boyd’s  ethnographic research indicates that it may be “white flight” that led to Facebook’s success over MySpace.  There are also class politics at play here, which boyd has also noted in her research.    This complex interplay of race and class surrounding Facebook and MySpace is also something that Craig Watkins examines in his book, The Young and the Digital (Beacon Press, 2010).   From 2005 to 2009, Watkins explored the movement of young people, aged 15 to 24 from MySpace to Facebook (97).  Watkins found that the same racialized language used to differentiate between safe and unsafe people and communities was used to describe Facebook and MySpace. The participants in his study described MySpace as “uneducated, trashy, ghetto, crowded, and [filled with] predators,” while they described Facebook as “selective, clean, educated, and trustworthy” (80, 83).  Watkins (2010) suggests that the young people in his study associate MySpace with the uneducated and unemployed while Facebook’s uniformity conveys upward mobility and professionalism. Watkins observes that “the young people surveyed and spoke with are attracted to online communities that connect them to people who are like them in some notable way,” most notably race (97).

There’s been some additional research recently which suggests that “friend” selection on Facebook is not solely attributable to race, but that selection is complicated by other variables such as ethnicity, region, and membership in elite institutions (Wimmer and Lewis, 2010).

Race, Identity & Community.  The fact is that people go online to affirm their identity and to find community, often along racial lines.  In the chart of popular sites above, note #13 is BlackPlanet.com.   Scholar Dara Byrne notes that offline social networking traditions among young black professionals, such as First Fridays events, have in many ways shifted to include online engagement at Blackplanet.com (Bryne, (2007). “Public discourse, community concerns, and civic engagement: Exploring black social networking traditions on BlackPlanet.com.” JCMC, 13(1), article 16).

African Americans who are searching for genealogical roots, also use social networking sites to affirm identity and find community.  For example, research by Alondra Nelson and Jeong Won Hwang’s research explores the proliferation of YouTube videos by genetic genealogists (in Nakamura and Chow’s, Race After the Internet, forthcoming from Routledge) . African American genealogists in the Internet era are enabled by developments such as Google’s personal genomics company 23andMe, which sells consumers genetic inferences about their “health, disease and ancestry,” with a social networking component.  In the videos people make of themselves, they reveal and react to the results of their DNA testing in “roots revelations” and viewers respond to the videos.   Nelson and Hwang theorize that these roots revelations, and the call-and-response that follows in the YouTube comments, are premised on a type of racial sincerity in which identities are drawn not only from genetic ancestry results, but also from the networked interaction between broadcasters and their audiences.

Here again, like with BlackPlanet.com, people are going online specifically to affirm racial identity and to seek community around that identity.   In many ways, SNS function in ways that newspapers used to function, creating “imagined communities” among those who engage with them (Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 1991).   Following on Anderson’s concept of imagined communities, André Brock looks at online news sites as an important venue for creating racial meanings through a discussion of the series “The Wire” staged by a sociologist and blogger at the New York Times (Brock, “Life on the Wire: Deconstructing Race on the Internet,” Information, Communication and Society, 12 (3):344-363).

Grasmuck, Martin and Zhao (2009) take a different approach to race and SNS and explore the racial themes associated with injustice frequently included by the African American, Latino, and Indian students on their Facebook wall.  They theorize that these wall postings convey a sense of group belonging, color consciousness, and identification with groups historically stigmatized by dominant society. In contrast, the profiles of white students and Vietnamese students rarely signaled group identification or racial themes, reflecting ‘‘strategies of racelessness.’’

Racism & Social Networking Sites. Social networking sites are not only a place where people affirm identity and seek community.  These sites are also a venue where racism regularly appears.   Research by Brendesha Tynes, a professor of educational psychology and of African American studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Suzanne L. Markoe of the University of California, Los Angeles, is published in the March issue of Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, explores how young people negotiate racism in SNS.

The study, which examined the relationship between responses to racial theme party images on social networking sites and a color-blind racial ideology,  found that white students and those who rated highly in color-blind racial attitudes were more likely not to be offended by images from racially themed parties.  In other words, the more “color-blind” someone was, the less likely they would be to find parties at which attendees dressed and acted as caricatures of racial stereotypes (e.g., photos of students dressed in blackface make-up attending a “gangsta party” to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day) offensive.

They look at associations between responses to online expressions of racism and color blind racial attitudes.  Tynes and Markoe operationalize racism by using photos of racially themed parties (e.g., blackface or “ghetto” themes) and asking study participants to respond.  They showed 217 African American and white college students images and prompted them to respond as if they were writing on a friend’s “wall” on Facebook or MySpace. The researchers also measured self-reported racial color blindness.  Their findings indicate that those who scored lower in color blindness were more vocal in their opposition to the images and were more likely to say that they would “defriend” someone who engaged in the practice.   White participants and those who scored high in racial color blindness were more likely to be in the not bothered reaction group. Further, these students were more likely to condone and even encourage the racial theme party practice by laughing at the photos and affirming the party goers.  Although both studies use small samples, Grasmuck, Martin and Zhao’s work along with Tynes and Markoe’s research moves the field of race and Internet studies a step beyond which social networks people join and why to how race (and racism) shapes what they do once in those networks. (I wrote more about this important research back in April, 2010).

Future Research. There’s still a lot missing from our understanding of race, racism and SNS.   One area that I expect will yield a lot of interesting research has to do with race, racism and Twitter.  Current estimates that approximately 8% of all people in the U.S. are using Twitter, a combination microblogging and social networking site where users post 140-character updates.   Twitter also appears to be more popular with blacks than with whites, There are interesting racial ‘eruptions’ here, such as the #browntwitterbird hashtag and with user handles like @whitegirlproblems.   To date, there is nothing in the peer-reviewed literature about race, racism and Twitter and this will no doubt change soon.

For the next installment of this series, I’ll be back with a discussion about race and online dating.

Colorblindness Linked to Racism Online and Off

An important and path breaking new study links colorblind racial ideology to racism online and off.  The study, by Brendesha Tynes, a professor of educational psychology and of African American studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Suzanne L. Markoe of the University of California, Los Angeles, is published in the March issue of Journal of Diversity in Higher Education.

The study, which examined the relationship between responses to racial theme party images on social networking sites and a color-blind racial ideology,  found that white students and those who rated highly in color-blind racial attitudes were more likely not to be offended by images from racially themed parties.  In other words, the more “color-blind” someone was, the less likely they would be to find parties at which attendees dressed and acted as caricatures of racial stereotypes (e.g., photos of students dressed in blackface make-up attending a “gangsta party” to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day) offensive.

To conduct the study, Tynes and Markoe showed 217 ethnically diverse college students images from racially themed parties and prompted them to respond as if they were writing on a friend’s Facebook or MySpace page.   Fifty-eight percent of African-Americans were unequivocally bothered by the images, compared with only 21 percent of whites. The majority of white respondents (41 percent) were in the bothered-ambivalent group, and 24 percent were in the not bothered-ambivalent group. n the written response portion of the study, the responses ranged from approval and nonchalance (“OMG!! I can’t believe you guys would think of that!!! Horrible … but kinda funny not gonna lie”) to mild outrage (“This is obscenely offensive”).

The students also were asked questions about their attitudes toward racial privilege, institutional discrimination and racial issues. Those who scored higher on the measure were more likely to hold color-blind racial attitudes, and were more likely to be ambivalent or not bothered by the race party photos.  Respondents low in racial color-blindness were much more vocal in expressing their displeasure and opposition to these images, and would even go so far as to “de-friend” someone over posting those images.

Tynes’ research also revealed an incongruence of reactions among white students that she’s dubbed “Facebook face,” which she explains in an interview:

“To their friends, they would express mild approval of the party photos or just not discuss race,” Tynes said. “But in private, in a reaction that they thought their friends wouldn’t see, some students would let us know that they thought the image was racist or that it angered them. We think that it’s because whites have been socialized not to talk about race.”

According to Tynes, a color-blind racial attitude is the prevailing racial ideology of the post-Civil Rights era, and is the view that seeing race is inherently wrong:

“If you subscribe to a color-blind racial ideology, you don’t think that race or racism exists, or that it should exist. You are more likely to think that people who talk about race and racism are the ones who perpetuate it. You think that racial problems are just isolated incidents and that people need to get over it and move on. You’re also not very likely to support affirmative action, and probably have a lower multi-cultural competence.”

Since a color-blind racial ideology is associated with endorsement of the racial theme party photos, Tynes says that mandatory courses on issues of racism and multicultural competence are necessary for students from elementary school through college.

Tynes, who recently was awarded a $1.4 million grant to study the effects of online racial discrimination by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said that along with the role children and adolescents play in producing online hate, her inspiration for the study was the numerous racially themed parties that occurred on college campuses across the country in 2007 and the resultant blowback when images from the parties were posted on Facebook and MySpace.

Racism Flourshing Online

The Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) has released its annual report on “digital1936541974_e6e7ba6c9f terrorism and hate” which finds that racism and antisemitism are flourishing online.  Their report asserts that there has been a 25 percent rise in the past year in the number of “problematic” social networking groups on the Internet (Creative Commons License photo credit: rosefirerising).

In assessing the extent of hate online, the SWC casts a wider net than other monitoring organization (such as the Southern Poverty Law Center or the Anti-Defamation League) to include sites that promote “racial violence, anti-semitism, homophobia, hate music and terrorism.”  And, the report encompasses a variety of forms of online communicatio such as  Web sites, social networking groups, portals, blogs, chat rooms, videos and games that promote hate.

While it’s hard to measure such phenomena with any precision, there are other indications that racism, and other forms of hatred, are flouring online.   For example, there’s been growing attention on the rise of racist groups on social networking sites such as Facebook, where roups with names such as ‘get all the Paki’s out of England’ with hundreds of members, are common.   People in the U.S. take racism online (and off) much less seriously than people in Europe and other industrialized Western nations for a variety of reasons that I discuss at length in Cyber Racism.  Typical of the European attitudes is indicated by a British MP (Labour) Denis MacShane, who told The Daily Telegraph recently:

“The way you defeat extremism, intolerance, prejudice and racism is to atomise it and make people feel that even if they think racist thoughts they can’t say it openly. But websites like Facebook have unfortunately allowed people to come together in one space and say, ‘there are people out there like me’. That is something that worries me greatly. For all the good social networking sites do, they also allow people to express prejudice that in a civilised society should be kept under lock and key.”

Although I certainly agree that racism online is flourishing, I take issue with the way that this typically gets reported.   For instance, this Reuters story about the SWC report that’s being widely quoted in a variety of other news sources, starts this way:

“Militants and hate groups increasingly use social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube as propaganda tools to recruit new members….” [emphasis added]

Calling what happens with the growth of hate online “recruiting” is to misunderstand the way the Internet works.   People are not recruited into hate groups online any more than paying customers are recruited by sex workers (aka, prostitutes) on Craigslist.    This sort of discourse (“recruit”) is often used alongside words like “lure,” and this is often used when describing the oddly coupled threat of white supremacists and child pornography online.    When reporters and others talk about using the Internet to “recruit” or “lure” unsuspecting innocents online, they misperceive a fundamental feature of the Internet: the search engine.   People go online and search for information.  The reason online racism (and other forms of hate) are flourishing is because lots of people are searching for that sort of content, and a smaller group of people is creating racist content.

If we really want to do something collectively to address the growth of racism online, then we need to address the underlying appeal of racist content by those who create it and those who seek it out.