White people are more likely to confront those who post racist content on social media.

On surveys, at least, but on surveys very few people say they are anti-science, or even anti-vaccine. Not from 1998 to 2021, when coastal cities dominated vaccine exemptions, and not from 2021 on when middle states do. In both cases the argument is they support science but products need more testing, and they are anti-corporate.

Everyone is against racism on a survey, and many are more likely to oppose it as long as they are behind a keyboard, but this survey had an interesting wrinkle; the reason white people stand up to racism is to protect a civilized discourse, not to try and change other people. 

Photo by Fred Zwicky

The surveys were done during the 2020 U.S. presidential election cycle to explore the conditions under which white people would challenge hate speech on social media. Those in the study were presented with a vignette in which they encountered a racist post on a social media platform and were asked to indicate how likely they would be to confront the author if their goal were to change the person’s beliefs and if it were setting social norms by letting its author know their remarks were unacceptable. The author of the racist remarks in the scenario was randomly assigned to be a close friend, family member, acquaintance or stranger. 

“Overall, we found that reframing the confrontation goal from changing someone’s mind to setting social norms increased participants’ willingness to challenge these types of posts,” said Professor Stewart M. Coles of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “Participants also indicated greater willingness to confront someone they were closer to rather than someone who was relationally distant, such as a stranger or acquaintance.”

The authors suggest that reframing the goal of the interaction from changing the offender’s beliefs to setting the norms and expectations for content could induce more people to challenge such posts.

Norm-setting changes the nature of the social media environment, eroding the social power that allows users to disseminate racist ideology, the researchers said.

It also was an appealing strategy for two groups of people in the study – those who were the most cynical about the value of discussing political issues such as race and those with the greatest reluctance to challenge offensive content posted by relationally distant users such as strangers and acquaintances, the researchers found.