Racial segregation is alive and well on social media


Among other things, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the gulf between how black and white America understands the issues of race and policing. Today, American views on race relations are at their most pessimistic since the Rodney King riots in 1992, according a recent New York Times/CBS News poll.

In a new piece of research published on Monday, the Pew Research Center has highlighted how that divide plays out in its most modern technological form: on social media. Instead of bringing a diverse range of opinions into the lives of homogenous communities, Pew’s study suggests that social networks have reflected the segregation seen in other parts of the world.

According to the research, the gulf between what black and white people see posted on social media is astonishing. For example, black Americans are four times more likely than whites to say that “most” of the posts they see on social media are race related. Simultaneously, white Americans are more than three times as likely than black people to say that “none” of the posts they see on social media have to do with race.

The chart is notable, because it shows some of the real-world, political consequences of the well-documented “echo chamber” that social media has become, thanks to complex algorithms that dominate the most popular networks like Facebook. Rather than show people opinions that challenge their beliefs, the algorithms share content that data says we are already predisposed to agree with, deepening the political divides that already exist. So white people remain relatively cloistered from some of the discussion around race and racism in America taking place in other communities.

This issue is compounded by the continuing segregation of the U.S. that takes place on a neighborhood scale. One study in 2014 found that a full three-quarters of white Americans don’t have any close friends of another race, compared with about two-thirds of black Americans. This is important because both black and white Americans (not to mention Latinos!) feel that race relations are at a growing problem in the country. It’s just that we don’t all agree with what we’re talking about when we say that. A majority of white Americans now believe that anti-white racism is as big a problem that anti-black racism, for example.

The implication is that when we talk about race in our lives, we largely talk about it with people who look like us. Pouring out your heart about race relations on social media might feel good, but as a means of affecting social change, it is increasingly ineffective. You are far more likely to just be preaching to the proverbial choir.

“You would think that social media would bridge a bunch of divides, right?” NPR’s Gene Demby said during a recent conversation on the impact of social media in race conversations. But the reality is so much more difficult to overcome. “But it’s not just where we get our information from. It’s who we talk to outside of social media.”

Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.

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