Study Finds Race of Messenger Affects How Users Interact With Posts on Twitter

A new study from the University of Kansas has found that on Twitter, the race of a specific tweet’s messenger can affect how a reader interacts with the tweet.

For the study, a sample of White millennial participants viewed real tweets related to Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality and racial injustice during the playing of the national anthem before National Football League games. The participants then answered questions about their perceptions of the issue and about who tweeted the messages. Eye-tracking equipment mapped the time participants spent reading each post, which was used as a proxy for their attention to the tweets. According to the results, participants looked longer at messages from White Twitter users, while self-reported data showed that they would be more likely to engage with Black Twitter users on the topic.

Additionally, the respondents also widely reported changing their feelings about the protests after reading the tweets. Those who were exposed to tweets in favor of the protests had an improved view of the subject, and the inverse was true for those who saw tweets against the movement compared with their views about the protest about three weeks earlier. However, there was no change in their attitudes on African Americans.

The researchers believe that when White millennials are asked to think about tweets from Black men in the self-reported data, they may perceive them as more knowledgeable about the topic. However, eye-tracking data indicated that, subconsciously, the participants still pay more attention to tweets from White men. Therefore, the researchers warn other academics to view self-reported data cautiously, as it may not be a true representation of a participant’s beliefs. Additionally, they believe that incorporating the right messenger can be just as important as the message itself when trying to influence young Americans.

“If you want a message to hit home with White millennials, you have to think not only about the message but who is delivering the message,” said lead author Joseph Ebra, assistant professor of journalism and mass communications. “There needs to be a ‘match up’ between the topic discussed and the perceived identity of the spokesperson.”

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