UC Berkeley School of Public Health collaborated with other universities to publish a study highlighting the brief, but significant drop in online anti-Black sentiment following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery in 2020.
Researchers from UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, UCLA, Furman University and the University of Maryland used a mix of qualitative and quantitative data in order to study racial sentiments. The Big Data 4 Health Equity research group was able to track a downward shift in Twitter messages espousing anti-Black rhetoric, according to Eli Michaels, co-author of the study and UC Berkeley School of Public Health graduate student.
Meanwhile, the researchers also noticed more discourse about structural racism and ‘“calls for justice,” according to Michaels.
The thematic and statistical shifts were indicative of increased social sensitivity to topics of race, as well as the deep entrenchment of racist ideologies in American culture, Thu Nguyen, associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health and lead author of the study, noted.
Nguyen said Twitter and other forms of social media can give an accurate view of social norms and cultural shifts.
“People are able to express things online that they might not express in person,” Nguyen said. “For that reason, it’s a great way to get a good look at cultural shifts with respect to sensitive topics.”
The study found that tweets negatively referencing Black Americans dropped by 32%. However, this decline was temporary, “lasting just a few weeks,” the study reads.
Michaels added that while national levels of “anti-Black racism” can shift, racist sentiments continue to be entrenched in American society.
“The pessimistic interpretation is that nothing will ever change,” Michaels said in an email. “A more optimistic interpretation is that there may be moments of opportunity in which individuals are paying attention to racism and want to be part of the solution rather than the problem.”
In their study, researchers also noticed an uptick in the desire for systemic change, with an increase in talks of police brutality and discussions around structural racism. This qualitative data, Michaels noted, allowed researchers to provide context for the quantitative findings and helped formulate the team’s overarching hypotheses.
Nguyen said the hope is that studies like this one will help catalyze change in the future.
“Being able to qualitatively and quantitatively understand how cultural norms and attitudes are changing will be motivating to politicians and public change-makers,” Nguyen said. “They may see a window of opportunity to enact certain things or put funding towards certain programs.”