Social media platforms have served as venues for political engagement and social activism for many years, especially for Black Americans. This was evident again in 2020, when the killing of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, by a White Minneapolis police officer resulted in widespread protests that demonstrated the reach and power of these platforms.
Across Pew Research Center surveys, Black social media users have been particularly likely to say that these sites are personally important to them for getting involved with issues they care about or finding like-minded people. They are also likely to express positive views about the impact of these platforms for holding powerful people accountable for their actions and giving a voice to underrepresented groups. The online community known as Black Twitter has long been using these platforms to collectively organize, offer support and increase visibility online for Black people and issues that matter to them.
Pew Research Center has long studied the use of social media for political engagement and online activism. This post on the impact of social media sites, and particularly how Black Americans view them and use them, is based largely on a survey of 4,708 adults conducted June 16-22, 2020, and a survey of 10,211 adults from July 13-19, 2020. Everyone who took part is a member of the Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology. Data from earlier Center research – based on a survey of 3,769 adults from February 29 to May 8, 2016, and a survey of 4,594 adults from May 29 to June 11, 2018 – are also discussed throughout this post.
The impact of social media made itself felt after instances like the killing of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City police in 2014 and the death of Freddie Gray after he sustained spinal injuries in the back of a Baltimore police van in 2015. Researchers from the Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI) have found that supporters of the activism movement used Twitter, specifically, to share breaking news, circulate images and engage with news stories about corresponding protests.
Analysis by the Center of publicly available tweets, from both 2016 and 2018, supports the idea that although race-related hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter are consistent on platforms like Twitter, spikes in the use of these hashtags often correspond with current events.
Black social media users are especially likely to use these sites for some forms of political activism
Though engaging in political behaviors and types of activism on these sites is not limited to any one group, Black social media users are often more likely than their counterparts from some other racial and ethnic backgrounds to engage in different types of political activities on social media and to believe these activities are more effective. Across four types of political activities asked about in a June 2020 survey, Black American social media users are among those most likely to use these platforms for activities related to causes and issues.
The types of online activism engaged in by Black social media users varies by age, with younger Black users being more likely to do these things than older Black users. But overall, 48% of Black social media users said they posted a picture to show their support for a cause on social media in the month prior to the survey fielded June 16-22, 2020, while a similar share said the same about encouraging others to take action on issues that are important to them or looking for information about rallies or protests happening in their area. One-third of Black users reported using a hashtag related to a political or social issue on social media in the previous month.
Across some of these activities, Black Americans who use social media were more likely to have engaged in these activism-related behaviors on these sites in the past month when compared with those from other racial or ethnic backgrounds. For instance, Black users (45%) were more likely to encourage others to take action on issues that were important to them when compared with White (30%) and Hispanic users (33%). The same was generally true across different groups when it came to posting a photo to show support for a cause.
In other cases, Black and Hispanic social media users both stood out from White users in using social media to look for information about rallies or protests happening in their area. Black and Hispanic users (45% and 46% respectively) used the platforms for this purpose, compared with 29% of White social media users.
At the same time, the use of social media for these political activities varies by age among Black Americans. About eight-in-ten Black users age 18 to 49 (79%) say they had done at least one of these activities in the month prior to the survey, compared with six-in-ten of those who are 50 and older (59%).
Across each individual activity asked about in June, younger Black social media users were more likely than older ones to say they had done these. For instance, 44% of Black social media users ages 18 to 49 said they used a hashtag related to a political or social issue on these platforms in the previous month, compared with 13% of those 50 and older. There are similar gaps between younger and older Black social media users across the other three activities – encouraging others to take action on issues that are important to them (52% vs. 31%), posting a picture to show their support for a cause (55% vs. 36%) and looking for information about rallies or protests happening near them (51% vs. 34%).
Many Black social media users find these platforms personally important and effective for political activism and express positive sentiments toward the sites
Substantial shares of Black social media users consider these sites at least somewhat personally important to them for purposes of finding others who share their views, getting involved with issues that are important to them and expressing their political opinions – and these figures have remained relatively consistent since the Center first asked these questions in a 2018 survey.
Their views also closely align with those of Hispanic users. For example, about half or more of Black and Hispanic adults who use social media say that these platforms are very or somewhat important to them for finding others who share their views and getting involved with political or social issues that are important to them, compared with about four-in-ten White users, according to June 2020 data. Similarly, about half of Black and Hispanic users say these sites are personally important to them when it comes to giving them a venue to express their political opinions, compared with smaller shares of White users (34%) who say the same.
Age is also a factor, with Black social media users age 18 to 49 being more likely to say social media are at least somewhat important to them for getting involved with issues that are important to them, compared with those 50 and older (65% vs. 51%).
Along with being among those most likely to engage in these online political activities and finding them personally important, majorities of Black Americans who use social media also say these sites are an effective tool for social and political advocacy, according to data from a July 2020 survey.
In most cases, Black, Hispanic and Asian American users stand out from White users in how effective they think social media are at achieving some social and political aims. About seven-in-ten Black, Hispanic and Asian users say social media are at least somewhat effective for changing people’s minds about political or social issues, compared with half of White users who say the same. These views generally hold true when influencing policy decisions and getting elected officials to pay attention to issues are considered. As to whether social media are seen as very or somewhat effective for creating sustained social movements, Black and Hispanic users (82% for both) are more likely to say this than White Americans (76%) who use these sites. Some 77% of Asian Americans who use social media say these sites are at least somewhat effective for this aim.
But online activism is only part of the story, as evidenced by the thousands of protesters who gathered offline in cities across the country this summer to protest anti-Black racism and to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Scholarly research has shown that online and offline activism are often integrated and are positively correlated. This research also suggests that in some cases participation in online activism can encourage offline protest by serving as a way to ease people into offline action and help them form their identity. Additionally, the author suggests that online and offline activities can be complementary over the course of a movement.
Research from the Center in 2016 also supports this analysis. That is, social media users who are highly politically engaged are more likely to do things online like follow candidates for office or other political figures or respond when someone posts something about politics that they disagree with when compared with users who have lower levels of political engagement.
In addition to considering these platforms effective tools for social and political advocacy, majorities of Black social media users also agree with positive statements about social media on traits such as the sites’ ability to highlight important issues and give a voice to underrepresented groups.
Across these positive statements, Black, Hispanic and Asian users often have more similar views than White users. Around three-quarters of Black, Hispanic and Asian users say the statement “social media help give a voice to underrepresented groups” describes social media very or somewhat well, compared with a smaller share of White users (58%) who agree, according to July 2020 data.
Black, Hispanic and Asian users are less likely than White Americans to say “social media make people think they are making a difference when they really aren’t” describes these sites at least somewhat well – though majorities across all groups say this. Black and Hispanic Americans also stand out in being less likely to say that social media distract people from issues that are truly important when compared with slightly larger shares of White users who agree. Black social media users are also less likely than Asian American users to say these sites distract people from truly important issues.
What do the tweets tell us?
Though online conversations about racial injustice and race relations seem to peak along with race-related events in national news, a Center study from 2016 found that race-related posts on Twitter are always happening and span a variety of subjects, including social activism, pop culture and personal experiences.
Survey work by the Center in 2016 also found that Black social media users are more likely to see race-related content on these platforms. Black social media users were more likely than White users to say that most of what they see on these sites is about race or race relations (24% vs. 6%). Hispanic users fall in between these two groups, with 14% saying that most of what they see on these sites is related to race.
Still, current events do often bring these conversations to the forefront of public consciousness. From the period of July 2013 through May 2018, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was used nearly 30 million times – often increasing along with responses to real-world events – according to 2018 Center analysis of public tweets.
In May of this year, an analysis of tweets by the Center found that days after the killing of Floyd by police, nearly 8.8 million tweets contained the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. After that initial peak, the number of tweets containing the hashtag remained above 2 million uses per day through June 7.
Though the Center analysis of tweets does not include demographic information about who is tweeting, a study by the Knight Foundation on the relationship between Black Twitter (and other sub-communities on social media) and the media supports some of these findings by suggesting that participants in these online communities often use Twitter to circulate and raise awareness of issues before media organizations or journalists take interest. And even before Twitter and other well-known social media sites were established, Black-centric blogs were known for pressuring media organizations to cover topics that were otherwise going unnoticed.
Work from other researchers, like those from CMSI, suggests that social media benefit marginalized populations – by both leveling the playing field and allowing people from these groups to pursue social change. The report also suggests that today’s youth are particularly drawn toward “digitally-enabled and cause-based” activism.