Europe’s growing ethnic diversity stands in contrast to rising anti-immigrant sentiments, discrimination, and racism. To investigate beyond conventional survey methods and capture such sentiments as expressed online, sociologists Anastasia Menshikova and Frank van Tubergen waded into Twitter. There, using automated text analysis, they were able to determine a pattern by which online anti-immigrant rhetoric paralleled exposures to instances of anti-immigrant media.
As reported in the European Sociological Review, Menshikova and van Tubergen, along with a research team, first created a panel of 28,000 Twitter users in 39 regions in the United Kingdom. Then they worked to quantify the anti-immigrant sentiments contained within 500,000 tweets over a 1-year period. They found that people tweeted more negatively about immigrants in periods when they were more strongly exposed to the coverage of immigration in the news. This association applied both for national news coverage and the personalized set of outlets people followed on Twitter. In addition, Twitter users tweeted less negatively about immigrants if they lived in areas with more non-western immigrants and if they followed a more ethnically diverse group of people on the platform.
It appears that classic sociological theories still apply to online expressions of prejudice as social media becomes a site of boundary maintenance. Thus, what is often hailed as a tool for democratization may simply open new avenues for discrimination.