Students in an Advanced Cartography course at California’s Humboldt State University have unveiled what many folks already realize: Twitter is racist and homophobic. The students compiled a map of hate speech on Twitter for a project called the “Geography of Hate.”
The map used 150,000 tweets sent from June 2012 through April 2013 to determine its findings, but this data sample was chosen by humans rather than algorithms and machines. That specific decision cuts down on selecting data samples that don’t fit the needs of the experiment.
The students read through geocoded (location-tapped) tweets and selected those that contained hate words. These words were then filtered into three categories: positive, negative or neutral. Negative tweets are the only ones appearing on the map.
Some of the findings from the “Geography of Hate” map include:
- Southerners tweet more bigotry than Northerners, but the n-word appears throughout the United States. Southern California is the only location immune from hateful uses of the n-word.
- The term “wetback” is used most often in Texas than anywhere else in the United States.
- Virginia prefers the “chink” slur to refer to Asians.
Homphobia is also rampant, appearing consistently throughout the United States. It is least existent in Los Angeles.
These results won’t shock avid Twitter users. We aren’t that far removed from the racist backlash President Obama’s re-election garnered on Twitter. “The Hunger Games” movie also fell victim to Twitter’s shock-and-awe racists when actors of color were selected to star as characters Cinna, Rue and Thresh.
Some countries are taking vigilant actions against using social media to spew vitriol. In January, the French government requested the user information from all those tweeting anti-Semitic slurs. France’s minister of women also urged Twitter to develop filters designed to prevent hate from being tweeted to the masses.
The United States has a small molehill called the First Amendment to consider, but some vigilantes are shaming racists through sites like “Hello There, Racists.”
Deon Freelon, an assistant professor at American University’s School of Communications, thinks shaming is a response to the First Amendment.
“Because the First Amendment basically takes the prosecution of nearly all speech acts off the table, shaming is becoming a quintessentially American response to offensive speech online,” he told the New Republic.
However, combatting racists requires more than shaming, according to several experts.
Writer Lydia Depillis condemns shaming. She writes: “The researchers and advocates I talked to couldn’t name a single study that attempts to quantify how people react to having their racist remarks—whether they show up on Twitter or more conventional hate sites—censored outright versus mocked on the Internet.”
Several experts agree, including Middlebury College professor Erick Bleich—author of The Freedom to Be Racist?: How the United States and Europe Struggle to Preserve Freedom and Combat Racism—tells the New Republic that banning racist organizations and their messages doesn’t have much impact on overall racism. However, it does keep propaganda out of the susceptible minds of adolescents.
“For anti-racists, restricting easy access to racist information and symbols deters the spread of nasty ideologies, and decreases the probability that the young or the gullible will be pulled into the orbit of hard-core racists,” Bleich said.
Other experts argue exposing racists is helpful in bringing cultural awareness to the issue. Jesse Daniels, professor at Hunter College and author of Cyber Racism:
White Supremacy Online and the New Attack on Civil Rights, sees casual racism permeating social media.
“I think there’s this vast middle ground of people who are just casually racist in a way that they never get called out on in their day-to-day lives,” he told the New Republic.
“And when they start putting that online, and get called out, and it’s like ‘Oh, wow, I didn’t realize.”
Depilis thinks there’s a much easier way to address racism than calling out people online. She writes:
Ideally, racism online should be countered by real, in-person conversations between the offender and a more enlightened friend, family member, teacher, neighbor—someone, anyone who can explain what’s wrong about hating someone for being different than you. Oftentimes, however, those people don’t exist or aren’t around at the right moment, and the rest of the Internet-using public is all a racist’s got. But that’s not necessarily the worst outcome. Thinking prejudiced thoughts, even letting them slide out into the world, isn’t an unforgivable offense. The real tragedy would be allowing them to go undiscussed.
Check out the full “Geography of Hate” map on The Guardian UK.