It’s a question that can be hard to confront: how racist or homophobic is your community? One group claims to have an answer for that.
Monica Stephens, a geography professor at Humboldt State University, asked three of her undergraduate students to help answer the question via Twitter. Using public data, they were able to map 10 specific racist, homophobic and ageist tweets in the country to try and point out the “hotspots.” The result was a map titled “Geography of Hate.”
“This project started with some colleagues at the University of Kentucky last fall, when we mapped where all the racist tweets were targeted toward President Obama were located,” Stephens said. “And then that got a lot of feedback, a lot of interesting comments.”
The method tracked all “geotagged” tweets, which is a feature on Twitter a person must opt into that publishes their location.
“In which case, we can see when they’re tweeting these racist things and where they’re from,” Stephens explained. “We’re protecting privacy by not allowing the user to zoom in below the county level.”
But Miles Ross, a senior at Humboldt State, said just how much he was able to see was unsettling. Ross was tasked with going through the majority of the 150,000 tweets from June 2012 to April 2013.
“It went down to precisely their house, in their room,” said Ross. “It was pretty scary it was that much detail recorded on one individual.”
The task itself? Tedious, and at first, shocking. “The first couple thousand words I read through, I was just blown away. I was like, ‘This is crazy!’”
In the 10 months of the research, two of the top-tweeted hate terms were homophobic, tweeted 44,000 times combined. In the Bay Area, the group tracked homophobic tweets in both Fremont and Hayward, but one of the hotspots fell in East San Jose near Story and Capitol. Locals we spoke with expressed surprise.
“I’m pretty surprised,” said Jennifer Santa Cruz. “Shouldn’t be something they should be doing – they should be open minded to all of this.”
For Ray Jimenez, a 19-year-old East San Jose native, the news was disheartening. “That’s kind of a big no-no that I think a lot of people wouldn’t touch on. When it comes to the internet, basically you can say anything, an no one will give any problems because they can’t see you.”
The most tweeted hate word of all was a racist one – the n-word. It was tweeted almost 32,000 times.
But there are critics out there who call the map “misleading,” and concerning because of how powerful the map visually is. Critics like Irina Raicu, who leads the Internet Ethics Program at Santa Clara University.
“It looks like the Eastern half of the U.S is one red hotspot of hatred. It turns out that when you look at all the qualifications of the people who put this together- that’s not what they’re saying the study shows,” said Raicu.
“So the visual is misleading and rather than creating a conversation that is truthful and reflects what’s really out there, it might make us think that there’s more hatred in one part place than in others.”
For example, in raw numbers not factoring in population density and number of Twitter users, the place with the most hateful tweets was actually Los Angeles County.
“When normalized by population and by number of people using Twitter, it was Northern Wisconsin – Green Bay area,” said Stephens.
For Raicu, the biggest concern was that only one-and-a-half of all Twitter uses opt into the geotagging feature.
“We might be drawing false conclusions based on this,” said Raicu, who said she doesn’t believe the group was intentionally misleading. “I think they are very well-intentioned and they are trying to get this conversation going and obviously it’s gotten the conversation going.”
For the creators of this map, the numbers are still meaningful and deserve further study. The next goal is to get funding so researchers can factor in variables like socioeconomic status to try and determine more trends. More importantly, the numbers tell a story and get people to ask the right questions.
For Ross, one question was clear.
“No one is born racist or homophobic, it’s definitely something that’s learned. So why is it that way?”