Is The Midwest More Hateful Than Other Regions?

Twitter is a way for people to send short messages about almost everything — from what they ate for breakfast, to their political opinions. But it's also a space where people are voicing racist and homophobic points of view. A new study from Humbolt State University looks at just where some of that hate speech is coming from.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Today we're going to spend some time talking about the power of social media. In a few minutes we'll meet one of Bahrain's most popular bloggers. He's actually been in hiding for the past two years to avoid arrest for his critiques of his government. He's now been granted political asylum in London, and he'll share some of his thoughts with us in a few minutes.

But first we want to talk about how social media can spread all kinds of messages. Recently we've talked a lot about Twitter, for example, how it played a role in building up a fan base for the ABC hit "Scandal." But Twitter can also be a vehicle for some really raw, offensive messages - racist, homophobic, you name it.

Our next guests have tried to see if there's actually a pattern to this. Monica Stephens is an assistant professor of geography at Humboldt State University. That's in Arcadia, California. From June of 2012 to April 2013, she sorted through hate speech on Twitter and quite literally put it on a map. The map is called "The Geography of Hate," and it's been published on the blog floatingsheep.org.

And Professor Monica Stephens is with us now. Welcome, and thanks for joining us. Also with us is Danielle Belton. She is editor-at-large for Clutch magazine online and creator of theblacksnob.com. She's a regular contributor to our program and is very active on social media, and she's with us now, as well. Danielle, welcome back, thank you so much for joining us.

DANIELLE BELTON: Always great to be here.

MARTIN: So Professor Stephens, let's start with you. Let's just say the methodology is very interesting, but I don't want to spend all of our time on it. But just briefly, because you do go into detail about this on the blog, so if people are really interested, they can read all about it.

But just briefly, your team pulled together every geo-coded tweet in the U.S., from June 2012 to April 2013, that contained certain keywords related to hate speech like the N-word or the F-word and people, and so forth like that. So why don't you pick up the thread there.

MONICA STEPHENS: Yeah, and then my students actually read through every single geo-coded tweet using one of these words to determine if the sentiment in the tweet was negative aimed towards that particular group or positively aimed towards that group or neutral towards that group.

So they were able to determine when these terms were used in jest or when they were joking or when someone was actually using the term to say hey, I'm really offended when you use that term.

MARTIN: And by geo-coded, that means what?

STEPHENS: Sure, so geo-coding is simply the process of adding an X and a Y coordinate to the tweet itself. So it locates where that tweet is in material space. So we could actually look at it and zoom in, if I had allowed that on the map, and you could actually see even sometimes what part of the house somebody is in and what their - but for this map I aggregated it all to the county level and then normalized that by the total amount of tweets that were in that county over the same time period.

MARTIN: And what was the point of doing that?

STEPHENS: That was first to protect the privacy of the people who were tweeting, and the other purpose was to account for population density, as, you know, some areas use Twitter more than other areas. There are obviously more tweets sent out from Los Angeles than there are from Omaha, Nebraska, and so just to account for that sort of difference, to say OK, well even if Los Angeles has the largest number of purely hateful tweets, we didn't want it look like it's the hot spot on the map.

MARTIN: So we can go through all the qualifiers that the attitudes captured are people who use Twitter and are geo-tagging and using certain terms. But even having said all that, just give us the headline as you saw it.

STEPHENS: Well, one of things that was most interesting was the term that it was used to refer to people who are perhaps illegal immigrants, and that ended up being very much clustered in Texas, around San Antonio and the Dallas-Fort Worth area. So when you start to see that sort of clustering happen, that people in that area are more likely to use that term in a negative way, it starts to give us an idea of how conversations are happening within the country.

MARTIN: And the N-word was ever popular, correct? I mean, of all the terms that seemed to surface the most often, the N-word seemed - from my reading of the map seemed to continue to be everlasting, right?

STEPHENS: Yeah, the students went through about 90,000 uses of the N-word to determine which ones were negative.

MARTIN: And geographically, did you notice - was there any trend that was significant?

STEPHENS: It tends to be in smaller towns, particularly in the Midwest, sort of the Rust Belt area, more so than it is in the South, but it's also quite present within Georgia and Alabama, as well.

MARTIN: So Danielle, as somebody who's connected through blogging, you kind of live on Twitter, right, and its social media, but what do you make of this, surprising, not surprising?

BELTON: It's not surprising. I mean, one of the things that attracts people to Twitter is the fact that it can be an anonymous forum. So people can rant and vent and say things that they would never say to your face online. It's an apt tool for what many people call trolling. So it's a way to get people incensed, a way to get a whole lot of attention. So it doesn't surprise me at all that you find in small towns that you'd have someone who's already anonymous, because of the power of Twitter, would feel like they're free, you know, to speak their mind, and their mind might possibly be filled with hate.

MARTIN: Professor Stephens, I know that just - and the map is interactive. I mean, you can pick certain terms and see where there were clusters of those terms, noting, as you said, that certain terms for people of Mexican descent, right, that have been used in the past, like the W-word, let's call it that, seem to be located in certain areas.

Even with all that, were you surprised that the West Coast did not show a lot of these terms?

STEPHENS: Yeah, I was surprised, but what I was more surprised by was that these terms are happening everywhere; that especially the N-word is quite universal around the United States. It wasn't just in small towns in the South, which is what, you know, we would have initially assumed.

MARTIN: What else? Where there any places where you didn't find those terms being used?

STEPHENS: Well yeah, I mean, I think that - I've gotten a lot of people questioning well, you know, why is it that Illinois or Indiana looks more hateful than Montana? And part of it is that there's just not as many people on Twitter altogether in Montana.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about a new study that literally puts certain racist, homophobic and hate speech directed toward people with disabilities on the map. Our guest is Professor Monica Stephens, who led a team that literally put these terms on a map. Danielle, you wanted to say something.

BELTON: Oh, I was going to say that it doesn't surprise me that you'd have a lot of racist tweets out of Illinois or Indiana. Being a native Midwesterner, there are certain regions and hot spots within these individual states that have a reputation for people being very vocal about minorities. And in the case of Illinois and Indiana, and even my home state of Missouri, you have a significant African-American population, not enough where we're the majority in any type of capacity, but just enough where people feel the need that they can be very expressive in how they want to complain about it.

You know, you can't complain about something unless you actually see it on a daily basis. So it's like - sometimes I think maybe people use Twitter less in Montana, but there's a lot fewer minorities in Montana.

MARTIN: Well, but that's an interesting question, though, because there's all kinds of conventional wisdom, which may or may not comport with fact, around how racial attitudes are formed. But one of sort of the truisms is that familiarity would lessen these kinds of attitudes because people would know somebody, right, they would know somebody of a different race, and therefore - or hopefully more than one person - and therefore that there would be less inclination toward these kinds of attitudes.

BELTON: You'd think. That's true, but in the Midwest, a lot of these major cities are heavily segregated. So in many cases, familiarity has bred like contempt between people, because people are in their segregated enclaves, and they feel very strongly about people who are different from them.

MARTIN: Professor Stephens?

STEPHENS: I think it's also that they haven't been together. I think that these - that people are more likely to tweet something using the N-word, for example, if they have had a negative experience with somebody who's black. And you'll notice that where I live, in Arcadia, California, there's very little traffic, and part of it is there's very little Twitter traffic, but also there aren't that many black people, but also that people do live in less segregated ways than they do in some cities, where you have, you know, a black area of a city and a white area of a city, and perhaps an Asian area of a city.

MARTIN: Again I said I didn't want to get stuck on the methodology, but Professor Stephens, I did find the methodology fascinating in the sense that there were so many uses of the B-word that you didn't have the research funding to pay people to go through all of them to determine whether they were positive or negative. There were literally millions. And I'm wondering if you have any hypothesis about that, why is the use of the B-word so prevalent?

STEPHENS: There were 5.5 million geo-coded tweets using the B-word over this 10-month period. And so to pay students to read every single one would have been about 641 days of student work in order to do that. So it wasn't feasible to look through it. But why do I think people use it more? I think it's often more used in also a positive, in a jeering way.

Somebody pointed out that dog breeders use the word, as well. So I think that it's used in a variety of different contexts.

MARTIN: And tell us, if you would, about the responses that you've been getting to your study.

STEPHENS: Well, I've received a lot of comments from people who haven't been able to read - they frequently ask questions, part on our blog floatingsheep.org. And so that's where I've been able to refer most people to, is we address issues where people comment and say, oh, it's not normalized by population. It's like yeah, it is. California has one-eighth of the population of the United States, and it hardly shows up on the map.

So that's one response I've gotten. I've also received a large response from white men who feel that they're being discriminated at by not being included in the map. And we actually tried to. We also looked at words like honky, cracker and gringo, but actually, those weren't necessarily used in a negative way very often, particularly the word honky, which often is referring to honky-tonk music and honky-tonk bars. And people were using it in a very, very positive context. So it wasn't something that we could include in the map, because it ends up being very - just such a small number of words that are actually negative.

MARTIN: Redneck?

STEPHENS: Redneck had a huge number, as well, but a lot of them weren't really negative towards rednecks. And they were also generally leveraged by people of the same group, and you could kind of tell that. Like...

MARTIN: So as being familial, in the same way that some black people use the N-word in a familial way, which you also screened out for - as not being negative.

STEPHENS: Right.

MARTIN: What do you - I understand that you kind of want to stick to the research, but any particular conclusion you'd want to point us to about this?

STEPHENS: At this point, we're still examining a lot of the conclusions, as far as the underlying demographics of this. But I think one of the things that pops out is the small town nature, and perhaps these are places that have experienced larger amounts of job loss over recent years. So that's an avenue I want to explore further.

MARTIN: Danielle, what about you? Any conclusions that you would point us to?

BELTON: I would say that this is just another example about how far we have to go as a society when it comes to race and ethnicity. Even though she couldn't normalize it for gender, because of the fact the term is used so much, the fact that the B word is a normal term for a lot of people to throw around, even though it has a negative connotation, is indicative of how far we still have to go.

MARTIN: Danielle Belton is editor-at-large for Clutch magazine online and creator of the BlackSnob.com. She was with us from St. Louis, Missouri. Monica Stevens is assistant professor of geography at Humboldt State University, although we caught up with her in Lexington, Kentucky, where she's traveling. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

BELTON: Thank you, Michel.

STEPHENS: Thank you very much.

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