Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Illusion of Agreement: #CrimingWhileWhite, #AliveWhileBlack, and #LeelahAlcorn

This post discusses Leelah Alcorn, a transgender girl who committed suicide.

The Atlantic’s Quartz just published an analysis I worked on with Gilad Lotan [1] about how people discuss race on Twitter using the hashtags #CrimingWhileWhite and #AliveWhileBlack. You should read the piece (cmon -- I was writing this over Christmas) but in brief, the results are more hopeful than my earlier, depressing analysis of how people discussed Ferguson. When studying Ferguson, I found that different social groups expressed opposite views, rarely talked, and were often hostile when they did; studying #CrimingWhileWhite/#AliveWhileBlack revealed that while different social groups expressed different views, they weren’t opposite views, and information sometimes spread between groups in a constructive way.

Good signs! Unfortunately, this apparent improvement may be somewhat illusory. In the Ferguson discussion, conservatives and liberals often clashed; in the #CrimingWhileWhite and #AliveWhileBlack discussion, conservatives appear to have mostly disappeared. So it’s not that people all agree; it’s that those who disagree are silent. It’s not that the schisms that scar Twitter have healed; we’ve just zoomed in on part of the landscape.

Here’s another example of this. On December 28, Leelah Alcorn, a teenager who was born Josh Alcorn but identified as female, committed suicide and posted a note blaming her parents’ intolerance. The story spread rapidly on Twitter, where people overwhelmingly supported Leelah and blamed her parents. One of the clearest ways to see this is in the gender people used when referring to Leelah: while her mother used male pronouns, Leelah used female pronouns. Tweeters were hundreds of times more likely to use “Leelah” than “Josh”, and pronouns also show a dramatic skew. In the graph below, the green line shows the proportion of tweets that use “Josh”; the blue line shows the proportion of tweets that use “Leelah” [2].

The green spike at the beginning is due to local tweeters who were offering condolences before the suicide note had been published. Their use of “Josh” implies that Leelah’s preferred identity was not widely known (or, perhaps, ignored) among those who knew her. (One tweeter who used male pronouns defended himself by saying, “She went to my school but I didn’t know she was trans”).  

It would, of course, be wrong to conclude from this that there is overwhelming acceptance of transgender Americans. A survey of LGBT Americans found that just 3% believed there was a lot of acceptance of transgender adults. Two explanations seem more plausible: the people who would refer to Leelah with male pronouns either aren’t on Twitter, or aren’t choosing to comment in the aftermath of her suicide.

As I write in the Quartz piece, we need more than this illusory uniformity; we need fierce but productive dissent. The internet tantalizes us with its ability to create a single human overmind, but at the moment that mind’s had its corpus callosum severed. Please write to me if you have thoughts on

  1. how to get people with very different worldviews to have productive discussions of controversial issues
  2. how to search Twitter (or other areas of the internet) for signs that these discussions are occurring.


[1] A Twitter expert. He does professionally what I only dabble in, and has studied everything from ISIS to Israel.


  1. I am interested in seeing how groups with different worldviews link to articles or essays in social media. It might be a way to identify what kind of writing speaks to both sides. The article (or tv/newscasts/video) data might need some sifting to differentiate between polarizing both sides and inspiring both sides, but I think the mining would be worthwhile. It could help formulate methods/models for productive conversations.

    1. That's a good idea! It would be cool to find the articles that liberals and conservatives tend to most agree on and most disagree on. Often I think it's just that they're reading entirely different things.

    2. Ahaha yes, the force that will bring us all back together :)