A sign lies on the ground at the site where an unarmed black man, Alfred Olango, 38, had been shot by police earlier that week on Sept. 29, 2016, in El Cajon, Calif.
Photo: David McNew (Getty Images)

Black Twitter, the “social media subculture” that has morphed into a thing unto itself, not only shines a light on underreported news and trends from within the black community—it has also given others entree into the complex, creative and assuredly hilarious way that black folks engage with the world.

Though Black Twitter’s popularity probably peaked a few years ago, one of the country’s biggest media foundations has released a comprehensive report on its interaction with the press, a relationship that is both symbiotic (the press goes to Black Twitter to get stories; those stories or issues are then amplified by traditional media) and occasionally marred by egregious missteps (see “coatswitching”).


On Tuesday, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation released the largest study ever conducted on interactions between the news media and Black Twitter; it also analyzed “Feminist Twitter” and “Asian American Twitter,” breaking them into their own subsections.

The report analyzed 44,620,175 tweets with community-related hashtags during 2015 and 2016 and explored the key differences—and similarities—between the groups (for instance, #SayHerName was prominent both on Black Twitter and Feminist Twitter). The Knight Foundation also interviewed 45 prominent Twitter users and journalists to better understand how the media and these communities interact.

Unsurprisingly, many of those interviewed felt shut out of the mainstream media, and this outsider status led to these subcultures. “This sense of exclusion is one reason for the development of independent online community spaces in the first place,” the report reads. Like the rest of America, many folks on Twitter do not trust the press and found some of the media’s interactions with Black Twitter problematic.

Key findings include the following:

  • Media critiques often relate 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.
  • Participants bypass mainstream media as a news source: Some community members use Twitter as a curated news source to avoid problematic portrayals by mainstream media outlets.
  • Media rely on Twitter subcultures as a source of news: Journalists view Twitter as a highly productive tool for gathering story ideas and insights.
  • Participants are concerned about story mining by journalists: Active participants did not like having their tweets harvested by journalists for stories without permission, citing two major concerns: lack of control over intellectual property and the potential for online harassment.

The most popular Black Twitter hashtag for the press was #BlackLivesMatter (remember, this was 2015-2016, when many prominent police killings were covered in mainstream media). What wasn’t as reported on were the more “insider” hashtags, such as #ThanksgivingWithBlackFamilies and #GrowingUpBlack.

From “How Black Twitter and Other Social Media Communities Interact With Mainstream News”
Screenshot: Knight Foundation

In all, the report is a fascinating look both at this powerful medium of expression and at how these various communities interact with mainstream media and one another.

Ms. Bronner Helm is a Contributing Editor at The Root. Mouthy Black Girl. Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow. Shea Butter Feminist. Virgo Sun, Aries Moon.

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