On Twitter, White Men With Followers Can Change Racist Behavior


This researcher programmed bots to fight racism on Twitter. It worked. – The Washington Post

The Post’s headline isn’t quite accurate. For one thing, they weren’t really “bots” (which to me suggests a program operating somewhat autonomously); they were puppet accounts, controlled directly by the researcher, Kevin Munger. From the study’s abstract:

I employ an intervention designed to reduce the use of anti-black racist slurs by white men on Twitter. I collect a sample of Twitter users who have harassed other users and use accounts I control (“bots”) to sanction the harassers. By varying the identity of the bots between in-group (white man) and out-group (black man) and by varying the number of Twitter followers each bot has, I find that subjects who were sanctioned by a high-follower white male significantly reduced their use of a racist slur.

The “sanction” was a tweet saying “Hey man, just remember there are real people who are hurt when you harass them with that kind of language”. Using this tweet, the high-follower white male puppets – and only those puppets – could improve behavior. Tellingly, the same tween from low-follower black male puppets led to increased use of racial slurs.

Surprisingly, anonymous twitter users were the ones whose behavior improved. Non-anonymous users did not reduce their slur usage in response to being criticized. (I would have guessed the opposite.)

It’s a shame that he didn’t use actual bots, since that would be very useful if it worked. However, a bot might have a hard time distinguishing harassing tweets from other tweets (such as a person complaining about having been called a slur).

I guess for the sake of reducing variables, he didn’t test responses to female identities. I hope someone does in a follow up study. It wouldn’t surprise me if female identities, like black identities, were less effective at changing behavior, but I’d be interested to see the numbers.

This entry posted in Language Politics, Race, racism and related issues, Racism. Bookmark the permalink. 

3 Responses to On Twitter, White Men With Followers Can Change Racist Behavior

  1. 1
    LapsedLawyer says:

    The lack of amelioration of racist behavior on the part of non-anonymous users does not surprise me in the slightest; they are, after all, out and proud of their racism/misogyny/homophobia and whatever other groups they single out for their vitriol. They want to be seen as what they are. There’s probably a long list of “why” (I’ve thought up at least 3 in just typing this) but the bottom line is they see themselves as leaders in some sort of movement, and they want to take credit for it.

  2. 2
    Ampersand says:

    Another possibility, mentioned by Theo Jones:

    Well, its not too surprising, because 4chaners realized quite a while ago that you can sponge off the credibility of real name accounts by giving your troll alts reasonable seeming names and profile pictures. So, a lot of the chan troll accounts are “real name” accounts.

  3. 3
    LTL FTC says:

    One way to think of this: Use outgroup call-outs and you set up a zero-sum dichotomy. You hold your tongue and I feel safer/better using the platform. Use ingroup sockpuppets and it’s about enforcing community norms. Presumably, being nicer to “real people” would apply to recipients as well.

    The most successful social movement of the last three decades, LGBT rights generally and gay marriage specifically, succeeded when opponents failed to provide a good answer to the question of how it would change heterosexual relationships or marriages.

    Contrast this with affirmative action, which is deeply unpopular and hanging on by its fingernails thanks to the Supreme Court. Allotting limited slots at prestigious universities is about as zero-sum as it gets.

    Trump made immigration a zero-sum issue. The left responded with a little half-hearted citation of research showing it’s not zero-sum, but mostly by highlighting the human cost to the outgroup. It’s a losing strategy dictated by the left’s own taboos.