In the days after Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed, black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, Twitter exploded with news from protesters and journalists gassed, harassed and arrested by heavily armed police. Included in these tweets were complaints about the lack of reaction and Ferguson news on Facebook. Because I went to college in St. Louis, I have a number of St. Louis Facebook friends. I saw Ferguson posts in my Facebook timeline (though nothing compared to my Twitter feed), but only from the people who often express strong opinions on Facebook or who are involved in activism. Both my Facebook timeline and Twitter feed echoed my sadness and anger at the shooting of another unarmed, black teenager and at the police reaction to the protests. I knew other opinions existed, but I didn’t see them in my curated social media circles. When I encountered a white St. Louis resident’s (who is not a Facebook friend) indifference and annoyance with the protests in person, I started to wonder — were other St. Louis friends posting about Ferguson?
I started scouring friends’ timelines to see if and what people were posting. I saw a lot of posts about the ALS ice bucket challenge, and occasionally, a Ferguson post. Were people quiet on Facebook because they were unsure what to say, what they felt, or because talking about race is divisive? Were they waiting to learn more? Did they not care? In “The Trivial Pursuits of Mass Audiences Using Social Media,” Douglas A. Ferguson says, “People on Facebook are expected to be upbeat… people are positive or they choose to say nothing at all.” Is this what was happening?
To better understand why some people post about potentially controversial events like Ferguson on Facebook while others do not, I conducted a survey of St. Louis residents. The survey asked about how they engaged with the events in Ferguson, whether they posted about Ferguson, and why or why not. After reviewing data from 56 St. Louis area residents, I found a majority of participants had posted, “liked,” or commented on Ferguson; most of those who did not said it was because they do not share political opinions on Facebook. Research shows that Facebook’s algorithm tends toward more positive items in the newsfeed and that people are less likely to voice an opinion if they think it will be unpopular. I argue that both Facebook’s algorithm and the “spiral of silence” influenced the visibility of Ferguson-related posts on news feeds and that while many followed the Ferguson news and discussed the events in real life, those comfortable posting about Ferguson on Facebook tended to be more politically active in their lives offline; those less comfortable posting about it are hesitant to engage in arguments on social media; and in both cases, people’s existing biases and social networks guide their interaction on social media.
The survey was open to responses between October 31st and November 16th, in the three-month period between Michael Brown’s shooting and the announcement that the grand jury would not indict Darren Wilson. The survey was posted to Facebook and Twitter multiple times, and it was shared by others (11 times on Facebook, four times on Twitter). I posted it on Tumblr once and emailed it to friends in St. Louis and friends elsewhere with connections to the area. After removing one duplicated response and one response from someone living outside the St. Louis area, the survey pool comprised 56 participants. Of these 56, 51 listed Facebook as their preferred social media, four listed Twitter, and one person preferred Tumblr.
Forty-eight people identified as white, three as Asian, two as black, and one each as American Indian/Alaska Native and white, mixed-race Asian and white, Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander and white (the survey allowed participants to select more than one category and included a write-in “Other” section). The majority of participants were between the ages of 25 and 44, with 29 respondents in the 25-34 range and 12 in the 35-44 range. Per a 2012 Pew Research study, Facebook appeals especially to women ages 18-29; Twitter to adults 18-29 and to African-Americans (“almost a quarter of all black Internet users are on Twitter,” says Soraya Nadia McDonald, writing for the Washington Post). I am white, between 25-34, and my Facebook friends are predominately white. The survey received the most attention on Facebook and appears to have been largely forwarded by college friends, so this breakdown is unsurprising.
The survey asked participants how they engaged with the events in Ferguson; whether Ferguson appeared in their social media feeds in August; how frequently and for how long Ferguson appeared in their feeds compared to the ALS ice bucket challenge, the death of actor Robin Williams, and news on Ebola; which of these four news items participants shared, liked or commented on; whether they’d posted about Ferguson in their timelines and the nature of those posts; and whether they’d liked or favorited others’ posts about Ferguson, and the nature of those posts. Fifty-four people said Ferguson appeared in their social media timelines in August; however, the two who said it did not said Ferguson appeared “a few times a day” in a follow-up question. Fifty-five people gave responses regarding their engagement with Ferguson: 21 said they followed the news and discussed Ferguson offline; 13 said they followed the news and discussed Ferguson on and offline; 14 said they followed news, discussed Ferguson on and offline, and attended protests, donated to or volunteered in the community. The remaining six listed a mix of engagement ranging from “not at all” to protesting without participating in online conversations.
When comparing Ferguson to the other news events (ALS ice bucket challenge, the death of actor Robin Williams, and Ebola) that appeared in participants’ timelines, 37 of 56 participants said the ALS ice bucket challenge appeared constantly (11 said it appeared several times a day, 7 a few times, and one person said it never appeared). Thirty-six of 55 respondents (one person did not give a response) said Ferguson appeared constantly, 14 said several times a day, and five said a few times a day. But when looking at how long events appeared in social media feeds, Ferguson remained the longest — 43 people said this item continued to appear in their timeline at the time of the survey, while 26 people said the ice bucket challenge appeared for a month (34 people said Robin Williams’ death appeared for a week, and 30 said Ebola was still in their timeline).
When asked whether they’d posted about Ferguson on social media, 31 people said they had. Twenty of those said their posts expressed support for the protestors or concern with the police reaction; five people said they shared news and/or more neutral, “pro-St. Louis” items; the remaining seven posts included two in support of the police, two stating that not all the facts were known, one “humorous photo,” and one response to racists posts. Of the 25 people who said they did not post about Ferguson, 13 specifically said they do not post political or sensitive topics on social media, because they don’t want to engage in discussions online, and in one case, because of family pressure (a family member is a police officer). A few more people (35) said they liked or favorited posts about Ferguson (18 supporting protestors, seven promoting non-violence and anti-racism, three news items, and seven “other,” including police support). Nineteen people said they had not liked others’ Ferguson posts, and again, the dominant reason was because they don’t share political opinions or get into arguments on social media.
Finally, I looked at how people’s engagement with Ferguson compared to their participation in the discussion online. Of the 31 people who said they posted about Ferguson (supporting either side), 14 said they attended protests, donated to, or volunteered in the community. The other 17 engaged with Ferguson via conversations and following the news. Nineteen others engaged with Ferguson events by following the news and offline conversations, but didn’t post about it on social media; six of those 19 did like some Ferguson-related posts.
Facebook Wants You to be Happy
Certain aspects of these results are expected, like the tiny lead of the ALS ice bucket story over Ferguson stories; others are more surprising. On August 20th, using data from SimpleReach, a social media analytics company that partners with about 1,000 publishers (including the New York Times, Huffington Post, and Time), John McDermott reported the number of Facebook referrals for Ferguson stories compared to referrals for the ice bucket challenge: “Stories about Ferguson and/or Michael Brown published since Aug. 7 have generated fewer Facebook referrals on average (256) than stories about the Ice Bucket Challenge (2,106). Ice bucket stories also receive a greater number of Facebook interactions — likes, shares, comments — on average (796) than Ferguson stories (518)”. Fifty-five percent of survey participants report posting about Ferguson on social media, but when looking at my Facebook timeline in August, 50% of the posts were not about Ferguson. I am not connected to all the survey participants on social media, so I would not see all their posts. Additionally, the survey did not ask when participants had posted about Ferguson, only whether they had. Nonetheless, it is worth considering the role of Facebook’s algorithm in what Ferguson stories appeared in timelines. McDermott quotes Jill Sherman, group director of social and content strategy at DigitasLBi, a marketing agency: “Facebook’s algorithm ‘may actually hinder the ability to surface breaking-news stories.’” While Facebook users may have posted about Ferguson, the less-controversial stories were the ones showing more often in news feeds. On August 18th, Casey Johnston at ArsTechnica suggested this happens on purpose: “Facebook’s controversial news feed manipulation study revealed, on a very small scale, that showing users more positive content encourages them to create positive content, resulting in a happier, reassuring Facebook experience.” Brian Barrett at Gizmodo explains further why fun and feel-good items like ice buckets are more likely to appear than contentious topics. “Facebook’s objective is to connect you to people; the more connected you feel, the longer you stay on the site. The longer you stay on the site, the more ads you see. The more ads you see, the more likely it is that you may accidentally click one. That’s why we don’t see incendiary topics…in our feeds.”  Facebook is not a news site. It makes money through ads.  The algorithm may show some news-related posts, but not a racially-charged, controversial subject like Ferguson. Says Johnston: “History shows that political events on Facebook can play well, so long as the majority of population is going to fall on the same side: the story of the Boston Marathon bombers played big on Facebook because it was unifying, but arguments about their race and religion, not so much.” Per the 31 survey respondents, people posted about Ferguson on Facebook, but the predominance of ALS ice bucket challenge posts shows the site’s algorithmic filtering at work.
Getting into dumb Facebook fights with people from high school… or not
Algorithm or no, controversial subjects won’t appear in a Facebook timeline if they don’t exist. In their introduction to their findings on “Social Media and the Spiral of Silence,” Hampton, Lee, et. al explain Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence, which proposes that people avoid speaking out about policy issues if they perceive their opinion to be in the minority. For this study, the Pew researchers looked at people’s opinions about National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden disclosing the American government’s surveillance of citizens’ phone and email records. “In both offline and online settings, people said they were more willing to share their views on the Snowden-NSA revelations if they thought their audience agreed with them.” Thirteen survey participants specified that they did not post about Ferguson because they refrain from political posts on social media. Their comments included, “In my personal experience, expressing political opinions on social media almost always leads to feelings of negativity;” “…I wouldn’t want to get into a dumb Facebook argument with someone I knew from high school”; and “…I don’t discuss political opinions on social media, because it is to no avail.” My survey did not ask participants if they believed most of their Facebook friends shared their politics; however, as the average number of friends among adult Facebook users is 338, and the average Facebook user has met all but maybe 7% of those friends, one can likely predict the reactions to a Facebook post and whether or not those reactions will be negative. Furthermore, Johnston refers to study findings that say “…because Facebook friend networks are often composed of ‘weak ties’ where the threshold for friending someone is low, users were often negatively surprised to see their acquaintances express political opinions different from their own.” If witnessing backlash on Facebook discourages people from posting about their political beliefs, experiencing it personally must be even more disheartening, assuring that future status updates will likely be neutral or positive. As mentioned, those are the posts Facebook has incentive to show users, to keep them happy and on the site.
While reluctance to engage in Facebook debates is one reason people refrain from posting political opinions, it’s important to consider other factors, like frequency and use. Some people rarely post to Facebook at all; others use it daily, but specifically for work reasons (publicizing events, for example). It may be that offline is the best way for some to discuss and process controversial events — away from the view of their entire social network. “By definition, engagement is the act of doing. But Dahlgren argues that engagement is also the act of “not doing” when the element of free will is introduced. In short, willfully choosing not to engage is engagement in itself when it is an individual’s choice,” says Rhon Teruelle . By choosing not to engage on social media, some may choose to keep peace within an offline social circle (work, family), but may also be bringing about change directly through conversation or action in other offline contexts. For example, one participant said his engagement included teaching at the Ferguson library when schools were closed; volunteering with the clean up effort; working at a food pantry; delivering food items; and attending a protest. It did not include posting on social media. It can be easy to forget that life happens offline when people don’t broadcast every event and feeling on social media.
Because I saw a few Facebook updates in early August, I assumed only certain St. Louis friends were discussing Ferguson. It’s clearer now that Facebook’s algorithm was involved with this (and as Zeynep Tufecki suggests, it’s possible the algorithm changed as more eyes turned to Ferguson, pushing related posts into timelines) and that people are more likely to post political opinions if they think their online network shares their view. If those refraining from sharing political opinions do so because they suspect pushback from their network, perhaps those comfortable posting political updates also recognize their social media circles reflect their beliefs and know political assertions will only get “likes.” Additionally, says Taewoo Nam, “citizens who engage in political activity via offline modes are more likely to participate in online political activity.” Of the 31 survey respondents who said they posted on social media about Ferguson, 14 said they participated in protests, volunteered, or donated to the community. Eleven people from the original survey pool responded to a follow-up question asking if they considered themselves politically active. Two of the 11 were counted in the 14 who attended a protest — they considered themselves fairly politically active. Seven considered themselves minimally to somewhat politically active. These seven engaged with Ferguson events mainly by following the news and conversing in real life; only one out of seven posted about Ferguson on social media. Nam also says, “those who are not politically active offline could also use the internet for political involvement and participation,” and that “offline inactive people generally tend to be inactive online, but their likelihood to participate in online politics rises significantly if they use the internet more frequently.” While 20 survey respondents engaged with the events in Ferguson mainly through the news and conversation offline, six of those did “like” or favorite others’ posts on the subject. This can be a way to show support for a cause without drawing the negative attention from those who disagree.
Part of the inspiration for this project was to explore whether the mass and social media St. Louis residents follow influenced their opinions on Ferguson. Reading through responses, I discarded this idea, realizing that people come to social media with their beliefs and social circles already in place. Those social circles mirror people’s own gender, race, and values. In It’s Complicated, an examination of teens’ use of social media, author danah boyd says, “when teens’ experiences are shaped by racism and misogyny, this becomes visible online.” This applies both to teens and adults online. White people do not like to discuss race, as confirmed by Jessie Daniels, quoting Delgado and Stefancic and Rasmussen et al: “The longing and desperation to avoid having to ‘think about, look at, or talk about racial differences,’ is endemic to contemporary whiteness.” But with an event like Ferguson, the discussion of race is necessary and inevitable, and people say things online that they would not in real life. In a piece on support for Darren Wilson, Sarah Kendzior, a St. Louis writer, says, “Social media is one of the few spaces in St. Louis not subject to segregation. This raucous online debate often stands in contrast to what area residents are unwilling to say to each other in public.” One survey participant’s response bears witness to this behavior: “People seem a lot more bold when behind a computer.” This seems to be especially true on social media, and why not? If we think our friends share our beliefs, we can be ourselves. Though I saw little to no hateful or racist comments in my timeline, I see this as the manifestation of real life social circles reproducing themselves online — a personal example of what Claire Cain Miller calls “tamping down diversity of opinion.” Says Ethan Zuckerman: “…many white American Facebook users likely have few or no African-American Facebook friends. This isn’t a phenomenon specific to Facebook – it’s a broader reflection of American demographics and patterns of homophily, the tendency of “birds of a feather” to flock together.” The Atlantic online confirms this, noting that 75 percent of white Americans have white-only social networks, which is higher than the racial homogeneity of black Americans and Hispanic Americans (65 and 46 percent, respectively). For those with racially diverse friend networks, there may still be uniformity in politics and values. Our beliefs are fed back to us as we scroll through our timelines. I went to a liberal arts college in St. Louis and am interested in social justice. Most of my St. Louis Facebook friends commenting and sharing about Ferguson went to school with me. As I “like” items, Facebook seems to show me more of the same (either more people have started commenting on Ferguson since August, or I trained my news feed by sharing and liking enough Ferguson-related posts); this is multiplied across the online population and its differing opinions. If Facebook’s algorithmic filtering fails to hide controversial posts, or a “weak tie” starts an argument, users can always choose to hide or unfriend someone, perpetuating the lack of diverse opinions.
How, then, do we move forward, if we’re operating on social media with a narrow scope of perspective, and when an algorithm may hide the opinions of those with whom we disagree? Although our online social networks resemble our real-life connections, as Kendzior suggested, there may be less segregation online than in our day-to-day lives. It can be easy to get caught up in social media, spend hours on Facebook, start thinking of your friends as enlightened, engaged, racist, ignorant, or disconnected and then start unfriending or muting people. But to combat the shrinking of opinions, it may be best to keep those connections, as evidence that others — people we know (and maybe like) — do think differently, and possibly even engage with those who disagree with us. While commenting back and forth on Facebook may not change opinions, sharing articles and information may result in someone finding an item that would otherwise not have crossed her radar. It can lead to conversation offline, which was mentioned by all but six survey participants as a way they engaged with Ferguson events. Facebook is a handy tool for finding friends and old acquaintances, sharing information, and organizing events; but for honest discussion of difficult topics, real life conversation with friends and family may be the most realistic way to bring about meaningful change.
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