Republicans more likely to call shooter a ‘terrorist’ when the person is black, Hispanic or Middle Eastern: Study
The opposite is true for Democrats, who are more likely to frame the shooter as mentally ill when they are a person of color, according to the researchers
Tweets on mass shootings are highly polarized politically and influenced by the shooter's race, shows an analysis of 4.4 million tweets posted in response to 21 different mass shooting events in the US.
Republicans are more likely to frame the shooter as ‘terrorist’ when it is a person of color, and ‘crazy’ if the shooter is white. The opposite is true for Democrats, who are more likely to frame the shooter as mentally ill when they are a person of color, according to the interdisciplinary team of researchers.
Researchers examined the tweets posted in response to shooting events that happened between 2015 and 2018, including the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016, to determine what words and emotions people with different political leanings expressed.
“This is the first large-scale study of the polarization of public opinion, using data from social media. Its implications are that public opinion in response to mass shootings is highly polarized linguistically. Understanding the reason behind this polarization and ways of mitigating it would be a fruitful avenue of future work,” Dora Demszky, lead author on the study and a Stanford linguistics graduate student, told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).
The findings, which were presented at a computational linguistics conference in June, indicate that the shooter’s race influences how people conceptualize a particular event.
The analysis shows that Republicans are 25% more likely than Democrats to write 'terrorist' in tweets about the shootings in which the shooter is African American, Hispanic or Middle Eastern. Democrats are 25% more likely to use the same word when they tweet about shootings in which the shooter is white.
“(The word) 'Terrorist' is always more likely to be used by Democrats than Republicans in events where the shooter is white, and the opposite is true when the shooter is a person of color. ‘Crazy’ is more likely used by Republicans if the shooter is white than if they are a person of color and the opposite is true (although the pattern is weaker) when a shooter is white. However, the fact that the influence of race flips completely for Democrats and Republicans is a striking result that calls for further exploration,” says the study.
The Stanford linguistics research analyzed how Republicans and Democrats use different language when discussing mass shootings on social media and found that Republicans talk more about the shooter and Democrats focus more on the victims.
The research team found that when people mentioned an earlier shooting as a way to contextualize the new shooting, Democrats are 2.7 times more likely than Republicans to mention a previous school shooting, which was most often the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
On the other hand, Republicans are 2.5 times more likely to mention an event of mass violence that involved a perpetrator who is a person of color, which most often involved mention of the September 11 attacks.
“Our findings indicate that certain frames/schemas of interpretation are so prevalent that people immediately take them up and reduce aspects of events to fit these schemas. For example, one such frame is to call an event an act of terrorism and mention 9/11 after learning that the shooter was a Muslim person. Such frames can be very harmful to people as they promote stereotypes. We have no findings on how polarization affects the emergence and propagation of these frames. However, to the extent that polarization might contribute to the emergence and propagation of these harmful frames, polarization has the same harmful effects as such frames do,” Demszky told MEAWW.
Researchers found that positive sentiment, sadness, and trust are more likely to be expressed by Democrats across events, while fear and disgust are more likely to be expressed by Republicans, particularly when the shooter is a person of color. Anger, trust, and negative sentiments are similarly likely to be expressed by both parties in their tweets.
The research team launched the study because they had three main questions: What is different about how Democrats and Republicans talk on Twitter? Could Republicans or Democrats be identified based on particular words they use in their tweets? How could these differences help understand the causes and consequences of social media polarization?
To answer these questions, the researchers used a method developed by Stanford economist Matthew Gentzkow together with Brown University economist Jesse Shapiro, who are co-authors on the new study, and economist Matt Taddy. The method determines the degree of polarization in speech, and it was used in previous research that examined the speech of members of Congress. The interdisciplinary team chose to focus on responses to mass shootings because “they are events with objective facts, the meanings of which people twist in different ways.”
“We live in a very polarized time. Understanding what different groups of people say and why is the first step in determining how we can help bring people together. This research can also help us figure out how polarization spreads and how it changes over time,” said the study’s co-author Dan Jurafsky, professor of linguistics and computer science at Standford University, in a statement.
The researchers found that Republicans tended to concentrate on breaking news reports and event-specific facts in their tweets while Democrats centered on discussing potential policy changes. They also found that the degree of polarization in the tweets increased over time in the hours and days following the events. For the three events where there was sufficient long-term data to draw conclusions, polarization usually plateaued after about three to four days.
Among other findings, researchers found that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to use phrases like “need to,” “should,” “have to” and “must” as part of their calls for political action.