If you spend much time on Twitter, these days, you may start to question social media’s promise of bringing people together. Just search any hashtag associated with the Central American Children, Ukraine, Gaza and now Ferguson — then steel yourself because you are about to become awash in hate. Social media, it seems, isn’t just cute cat videos and baby photos. Recently, Twitter and Facebook feeds have been transformed into battlegrounds.
Gary Silverman recently observed in a column for the FT, “All these closer connections don’t seem to be leading to peace and love, or harmony and understanding, or anything like that. Rather, the forces of tribalism, sectarianism and separatism are on the march just about wherever one looks on the worldwide web.”
Do trolls, terrorists and racists really dominate social media?
Is online extremism really as rampant as it seems? Let’s look at the data. To delve deeper into this question I needed a test-bed to test social media sentiment around an issue. I needed a hot topic that is divisive and is often ranted about on social media and where the sentiment was easy to interpret.
So, I decided to look at the issue of multiculturalism in America. It is a divisive issue that seems to be dividing America along racial and generational lines and is drawing out extremists on social media. The face of America is changing, and depending on your news source or your Twitter feed, you may start thinking that this demographic shift in America is tearing us apart. It is a hot topic, since recent studies by Pew Research state that by 2050 caucasians of European descent will no longer be the majority in America.
To gain insight into how Americans truly feel about this issue, I analyzed Twitter from June 2013 to August 2014 using Crimson Hexagon‘s Forsight tool to ensure I had full access to all tweets. I looked at conversations that discussed race, multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious issues in America. In order to avoid the noise of the immigration debate, I removed discussions about illegal immigration, immigration reform and the recent influx of Central American children. The immigration debate and attitudes about a more multicultural America are likely linked, but the volume of conversations about immigration on Twitter are so high that they drown out any other conversation topics and sentiment.
I developed a complex sentiment analysis search and manually trained over two thousand tweets before letting the algorithm take over to see what Americans really thought about a multicultural America. I divided the sentiment up into Positive, Neutral, Generally Negative and Hate Speech, i.e. overtly racist or violent sentiment. The latter categories, Negative and Hate Speech, are our online extremists in this example.
The results are positive. 53% of all tweets over the last year were generally positive, compared to 15% that were negative (combined generally negative and hate speech). Over all, the positive sentiment was over three times greater than the negative.
But On a Day to Day Basis the Extremists Rule.
If you are surprised by the above result because you feel like an angry America is all over Twitter, you are not completely wrong.
On an average day, there are just as many or more negative tweets than positive tweets. In June 2014, 18% of all tweets on this topic were positive, while 17% were negative (the rest were neutral).
People who embrace the multicultural and mixed-race fabric of and trends in the United States don’t tweet about it every day. But people who do feel threatened by these trends tend to tweet about it much more often.
The above graph is a proportional graph of tweets per day on this topic. The green represents positive, the blue is neutral, the dark red is general negative and the light red is hate speech. This graph represents the proportion of all tweets on this subject on a given day, it does not represent volume.
Conversations about multiculturalism or race on Twitter are not common
From what I found, there is very little volume on this topic on a day-to-day basis. In the above graph, a time like August 2013 looks exceptionally negative, but it actually has a very, very low volume of tweets. The month averaged less than 40 tweets per day on the subjects of America’s changing culture, race and religion. There are also time periods where there are no positive tweets, but every single day has a negative tweet. If it wasn’t for those two large positive spikes, the average volume of negative tweets and hate speech would be much higher than the positive.
Miss America and Coca-Cola Save America
America is not debating the changing demographics of the United States population daily on Twitter. However, certain events seem to have caused gigantic spikes in the conversation.
First, Miss America, Nina Davuluri, ignited the conversation when she was crowned in September 2013. The graph to the right looks at the volume of tweets between August 1st, 2013 and October 1st, 2013. In this graph you easily see how little conversation there was around multicultural topics in August, and how the conversation spikes in mid-September with the Miss America announcement.
Miss Davuluri helped drive the overall positive sentiment in this result. As you can see from the graph to the right her crowning caused a huge spike in positive (green) sentiment. Many news stories about Miss Davuluri instead focused on the negative tweets that followed her crowning and reading these stories alone, you might believe that most of the conversation on twitter was attacking Miss Davuluri. The reality, based on this analysis, is quite different.
The next graph is a proportional graph of tweets on this topic from September 14th to October 1st, 2013. An uptick in Hate Speech tweets caused a huge positive outpouring that lasted for over ten days after the event. 81% of all tweets on this topic during this time frame were positive, compared to only 11% that could be classified as “Hate Speech.”But the volume of the Miss America twitter conversations was minuscule compared to the volume of tweets created by Coca-Cola’s “America the Beautiful” Super Bowl commercial. This commercial created the single largest Twitter conversation about a multicultural America in our analysis. Below you can see a graph of the volume of tweets collected over the entire period. The gigantic spike occurring on and after Feb 2nd (the Super Bowl) is all in reaction to the Coca-Cola Commercial.
The same trend that occurred after the Miss America event repeated, but amplified. A spike in negative tweets about the commercial resulted in a landslide of positive tweets supporting the commercial and a multicultural America.
For ten days following the Super Bowl, 83% of all tweets on this topic were positive. Only 13% were negative and only 6% could be classified as hate speech.
The positive tweets almost completely drowned out the negative tweets and the negative tweets almost completely dissipated in the face of the wave of positive tweets. The below proportional graph shows how a small spike in hate speech on February 2nd, 3rd and 4th creates an outpouring of positive support.
To check the accuracy and make sure my search terms and algorithm were working correctly, I set up a second analysis that ONLY looked at tweets that referred to the Coca-Cola commercial and the hashtag that was popularized by the backlash to the commercial: #SpeakAmerican.
Focusing only on tweets surrounding the Coca-Cola commercial did provide slightly different results, as the original monitor missed some negative tweets, but the overall trend is the same. In this analysis, looking at the month following the Superbowl, 64% of all tweets were positive and 24% were negative. The trend looks similar though – an initial spike in negative tweets caused an overwhelming out-pouring of positive tweets in support of the commercial and a multicultural America.
Our initial analysis missed a small spike in tweets on February 8th that came from a blog post from Alan B. West, a former congressman from Florida who was voted out after one term in office. Mr. West used a popular and amazing Youtube video of the Kentucky All-State Choir singing the National Anthem in their hotel to attack the Coca-Cola commercial, even though the Coca-Cola commercial used “America the Beautiful,” and not the National Anthem (a fact often confused on Twitter). An excerpt from Mr. West’s blog was tweeted over 200 times. See the most common version of the tweet below:
Amazing hotel rendition of National Anthem. Note to Coke: this is how you do it – Allen B. West
My Multicultural Analysis missed this trend, but in the scheme of the entire Coca-Cola commercial discussion it was only a small blip. The 200 negative tweets on Feb 8th are almost all in reference to Mr. West’s blog post and dominated the sentiment on that day (after all the other conversations had died out), but at the height of the discussion, on Feb 3rd, there were more than 4,500 positive tweets.
Don’t Be Fooled by Extreme Speech
The fact that any American citizens would tweet a negative comment about an Indian-American Miss America can be disheartening, but don’t despair. Based on this analysis, Americans overwhelmingly support the idea of a multicultural, mixed-race society and believe that multiculturalism is core to America’s success and values. Do not be fooled into thinking the country is a bunch of extremist zealots or that we are splitting apart at the seams. Most Americans embrace our diversity and recognize that we are a country based on immigration and the melding of the world’s cultures…we just don’t tweet about it everyday.
Conclusions & Lessons Learned
- Social Cohesion in America is alive and strong, despite the changing face of American demographics and the visceral reaction this change is receiving from extremists.
- Extremists tweet every day. Average people don’t. So, on any given day, it may look like a minority of extremist voices are actually the majority. But don’t be fooled, these extremists are simply a vocal minority.
- Twitter is not just a soapbox for extremists and trolls. Real America resides there too and, when needed, Twitter is an effective platform for rallying majority voices to equalize the conversation, drowning out the few (but chatty) extremist voices.
“How to Defeat Online Extremism”
- People need a symbol or a cause to rally around. Sometimes a strong catalyst is needed to get the majority to speak up and drown out minority extremists, but when they do, the effect can be overwhelming and inspiring.
- Simplicity Rules. Symbols need to communicate or address complex solutions and problems in a simple and straightforward way. A catalyst needs to be easily framed for social media. One reason extremists do well on Twitter is that they are not bound by logic or complexity. Their worlds are black and white. But positive and complex messages can be easily framed too, Miss America and the Coca-Cola commercial were easy examples for people to rally around. More complex issues with more grey areas like Gaza or the Central American Children are harder to frame positively in a tweet.
- Drown Them Out. One reason the backlash to the backlash over the Coca-Cola commercial was so successful is that positive tweeters hijacked the extremist hashtags, e.g. #SpeakAmerican, the flood of tweets then drowned out the negative tweets. If instead people had responded to every tweet directly, it would have instead engaged, empowered and legitimized.
- Humor is the Best Weapon. In WWII political cartoons enraged the Axis dictators more than any military action and on the Twitter battlefield funny posts making fun of extremists and their views also tend to be the most effective at both emasculating and drowning out the hate speech.
- Can these lessons be used to defeat ISIS and other Terrorists? Online? Yes.
- Free Speech Rules. In honor of the first amendment, the best defense against hate speech is more free speech. Giving average citizens a voice is the best defense against extremism and hate…Egypt, please take note.
I also published a version of this post on Coexist.org