The race of Twitter users can impact perception of Tweets

Many believe that taking an online stance on social issues is important — but does it ever feel like tweeting into the void? What’s the point, anyway? Can you really change anyone’s mind with 280 characters?

Well, you might. A study this month from the University of Kansas found that a very small number of tweets changed viewers’ beliefs about a social controversy. However, the race of the person tweeting can have an impact on white readers’ perception of what issue the tweet is about.

Mass communications researchers Joseph Erba, Yuchen Liu, and Mugur Geana from the School of Journalism and Mass Communications set out to determine how users see race when a social controversy is being discussed on Twitter. “We were interested to see…if the visual identification of a Twitter user influences how people perceive the message,” said Erba.

“It does."

As a test case, the team chose the national anthem kneeling protests initiated by football player Colin Kaepernick in 2016, a controversy with strong racial overtones.

The researchers showed white participants real tweets about the protests, paired with constructed Twitter identities that displayed the writer of the tweet as a white man, a white woman, a black man, or a black woman. Each participant saw tweets that were either for or against the protest.

In a straightforward pre- and post-test setup, participants answered questions about the protest, as well as their opinions on race. They also rated which profiles they believed to be most credible, and whose opinions they would seek out on the topic. Most participants reported that they would be most likely to seek out the opinions of black men.

But experimental data from eye-tracking software told a different story. White participants spent the most time looking at tweets from white people, and especially white men.

“Forty percent of white millennials voted for Trump,” said Elba. “In the study, they looked more at people who looked like them, but when asked directly, said they supported black men.” The researchers pointed to this result as a warning against giving too much weight to self-reported data.

The study’s post-test also found that participants’ views on the protests largely changed depending on which group of tweets they read. Anti-protest tweets decreased their support, while tweets in support of the protests gave participants a more favorable view.

"Four little tweets were enough to significantly change their views on the NFL protests. We did not find a difference in their attitudes toward black people or racism though," Erba said. "We think it was because the tweets were directly about the protests, and making the connection to larger issues may have just been too much."

The research will be presented at the International Communication Association conference in May.