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Studying the health implications of racist tweets

shaniece criss, asian americans and COVID-19
Shaniece Criss, assistant professor of health sciences.

Can the way people talk about race online impact health?

Furman’s Shaniece Criss wants to know.

An assistant professor of health sciences, Criss is part of a national research collaborative, called Big Data for Health Equity, researching how people talk about race on Twittter and the connections to health. Criss conducts qualitative analyses of the tweets to determine what they say about race and the percentage of people making those statements.

Looking at postings since the emergence of COVID-19, for instance, they examined about 1 million tweets and discovered that negative tweets about Asians increased 68.4 percent from November 2019 to March 2020, she said.

By reflecting society, she said, Twitter can be a proxy measurement of racism, and she hopes to use the research to better understand how racist tweets impacts health.

“So many people are using social media,” she said, “so it’s interesting to see how we could research that to learn more about a lot of different issues and interventions, and potentially policies, that can help people’s health outcomes.”

Criss also talks to Twitter users about how race-based tweets make them feel, asking them how often they come across negative comments, whether they see one group talked about more than others, and how they are affected by reading those comments, for example.

Respondents say there is both overt and subtle racism on Twitter, which also provides echo chambers for those views, she said. Most also said they were upset by the comments, and responded by blocking users, reducing their Twitter use, or speaking up about it in an attempt to restore the social norms of the online space.

“You can see some of the quotes of people, like ‘I can’t be on Twitter right now because it’s too much to take’ … or ‘I get really affected by it so I have to take a hiatus and detox,” she said. “We can systematically document it and analyze it to describe phenomena that many people are going through.”

Criss got into public health with an eye on research that could be used to change policy “because policy is how you make change.”

A new paper from the Big Data for Health Equity research group looks at how the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd impacted public discourse on race and racism on Twitter. The paper is currently under review, Criss said.


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