How Black Twitter and other social media communities interact with mainstream news

A new report by Knight Foundation explores how social media subcultures — Black Twitter, Feminist Twitter, and Asian American Twitter — interact with the news. Scroll down to interact with the findings or click here to read more about the report.

The issues and voices of people of color and women have attracted much attention from professional journalists over the past few years. Yet many such individuals have criticized journalists’ portrayals and coverage of issues that are important to them. In response, some participants have assumed the role of news creators and distributors, focusing on their communities’ particular concerns. Understanding these emerging social subcultures will allow more accurate portrayals of diverse communities and yield insights for better journalistic engagement in the digital age.

In 2017, Knight Foundation commissioned a study to understand how subcultures on social media, comprised of traditionally marginalized communities including Black Twitter, Feminist Twitter, and Asian-American Twitter, interact with reporters and the news. The goal was to create lessons for reporters on better covering and engaging with these communities, aligned with Knight’s journalism work that supports greater newsroom diversity.

Using a mix of computational analysis, qualitative review, and interviews, the researchers analyzed over 46 million tweets with community-related hashtags from 2015 to 2016. To date, this report is the largest review of Twitter conversations examining the relationship between media and these online sub-cultures.

Keep scrolling to learn more about what we discovered.

Twitter subcultures give voice to issues that mainstream media don’t cover.

Participants often use Twitter to share and raise awareness about issues of concern on their own terms without waiting for journalists to take interest.

  • Black Twitter Interview with community member
    Black women, black feminists, black gay men —they’re basically invisible communities outside of Black Twitter.
  • The Media Insight Project Data & findings
    According to a study published in 2014 by the Media Insight Project, 75% of black Americans said news media accurately reported on their communities only "moderately" or "slightly/not at all."
    Read the Media Insight Project's full report here.
  • Black Twitter Interview with Community Member
    Mainstream journalism operates from a space that heavily defaults to white issues. How do I trust this perspective when they don’t make the assumption that ‘people’ includes nonwhite people?

Community members express low levels of trust in the media.

Participants were twice as likely to express a negative view of a news outlet than a positive view. They also criticized and censured news media outlets more often than praising and endorsing them. However, the most criticized outlets were usually also the most shared.

  • Feminist Twitter Interview with community member
    There aren’t mainstream publications I entirely trust. I’m almost reluctant to read an article until I know other people I follow have read it and shared it.
  • Black Twitter Interview with Community Member
    I don’t think the news on TV is accurate. I think they’re reporting a lot of opinion. I don’t feel like it’s news. It feels opinion-based rather than fact based.
  • Knight Foundation Data & Findings
    Of the news outlets that provide coverage of the topics important to these communities, 71% are perceived as negative.
  • Feminist Twitter Interview with community member
    The reason I often don’t trust mainstream pieces or outlets is because they very rarely go talk to the people affected by the issue. They don’t consider people in a community experts in their lives, like we living it aren’t experts in our own experiences.

Media critique often relates to how issues are framed.

Media criticism is generally directed not at fake news but at what is perceived as harmful framing by the media; participants are not so much disputing the basic facts as asking why certain facts are being emphasized at the expense of others.

  • Asian-American Twitter Insights from the Knight Foundation Report

    Participants came to trust only individual reporters whose track record demonstrated that they understood and cared about the specificities of Asian-American experiences.

  • Feminist Twitter Insights from the Knight Foundation Report

    Participants compared the relationship of mainstream journalists to Feminist Twitter as anthropological rather than collaborative and described the discomfort of being written about as if alien rather than to or for.

  • Asian-American Twitter Interview with Community Member
    I think the presence of Asian Americans on Twitter has actually really showed journalists, editors, and people in general in the newsroom how it’s important to cover Asian American issues. With Twitter, you can call out a publication if they mess up, or if they don’t cover certain topics. Now there’s accountability.

Participants bypass mainstream media as a news source.

Some community members use Twitter as a curated news source to avoid problematic portrayals by mainstream news outlets.

  • Feminist Twitter Insights from the Knight Foundation Report

    When prompted to name mainstream outlets or mainstream journalists they trust for news, interviewees named very few of either, saying they tended to trust specific news stories that other members of the network share (as long as the share is not for the purpose of critique) or trust news stories written by members of the network first, women of color second, and women generally third.

  • Asian-American Twitter Interview with Community Member
    I feel like Twitter drives the mainstream conversation now more than ever. There was a point a year ago when the conversation on Twitter would be different than the mainstream news, but you have people monitoring their Twitter feeds. When I hear some news breaking, my first inclination is to go to Twitter and look it up.
  • Black Twitter Interview with Community Member
    I don’t think the news on TV is accurate. I think they’re reporting a lot of opinion. I don’t feel like it’s news. It feels opinion-based rather than fact based. Now, when my parents talk to me about something, I feel like they’re getting the news days after the news. People are tweeting about it as its happening.

Media relies on Twitter subcultures as a source of news.

Journalists view Twitter as a highly productive tool for gathering story ideas and insights.

  • Black Twitter Interview with Community Member
    If you’re a reporter, you don’t have to go to the spaces where we’re having these conversations. You can go to the TL, see a couple RTs. Next thing you know, you see this full-on conversation happening. That piques your interest. You just have access to a bunch of people talking about it. It’s very, very easy to gain access to gain community. It’s not like going into the physical representation.
  • Asian-American Twitter Interview with Community Member
    Twitter is just another means for journalists to see what matters to people, but it's important to note that a large number of active Twitter users are themselves journalists or people with tons of social media savvy who are trying to get their particular message out. To get a fuller understanding of any story, it's important to go directly into a community rather than relying on Twitter.
  • Black Twitter Interview with Community Member
    I think we do a lot better job covering ourselves than other people do. We are not a monolith... [I]t’s in the first person. When you’re reporting on something firsthand, it’s not anybody’s interpretation of what’s happening to you.

Participants are concerned about story mining by journalists.

Active participants did not like having their tweets harvested by journalists for story permission, citing two major concerns: lack of control over intellectual property and the potential for online harassment.

  • Black Twitter Insights from the Knight Foundation Report

    Black Twitter users noted that the reproduction of tweets in nationally distributed news reports exposes them to potential online harassment, threats or violence that they otherwise might not have faced had their tweet not been promoted on a larger platform.

  • Asian-American Twitter Interview with Community Member
    I am annoyed when a reporter Tweets at me asking for permission to feature one of my Tweets but already does so before I can respond. I am annoyed if someone writes about something I had a hand in creating but does not credit me.
  • Black Twitter Interview with Community Member
    Although people have accounts, they are still private citizens. They don’t mean for a tweet to go viral, and once it does, the outlet doesn't have to think about the implications for that person.

Engagement doesn’t equal favorability

The number of times a particular story is shared on social media is often seen as an endorsement and shares are considered to be important metrics for news impact. The data revealed however that popularity in terms of share counts does not necessarily mean approval or trust; content from news organizations with low-favorability ratings were also some of the most shared.

  • Knight Foundation Data & Findings
    Of the top 5 most shared news outlets across the communities, only one has a favorability score above 0.

Participants tend to share news content that covers their community’s high-visibility Twitter activities.

The data revealed feedback loops in which participants created compelling Twitter content, media outlets covered it, and the community then circulated the media coverage of its own content.

How Black Twitter and other social media communities interact with mainstream news

Download the report See how media covers hashtags