Which Gold Medalists Do We Tweet About? Liberals and Conservatives Differ
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Politics & Elections Social Impact Jan 17, 2019

Which Gold Medalists Do We Tweet About? Liberals and Conservatives Differ

New research explores how political ideology can affect whose accomplishments we celebrate.

a gymnast flips in a twitter bird spotlight

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Nour Kteily

Matthew D. Rocklage

Kaylene McClanahan

Arnold K. Ho

There’s a growing cultural awareness that the contributions of historically disadvantaged groups often go unheralded. For example, the Academy Awards faced outrage—and a trending hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite—over the paucity of nonwhite nominees. In tech and academic circles, the all-male panel has picked up a derogatory nickname: the “manel.”

Such criticism recognizes that being overlooked can have real consequences, both to individuals and to the group to which they belong. Winning an Oscar or a seat on a prestigious panel can further a career, but it can also reinforce or refute existing stereotypes about which groups can succeed in an industry.

Given the stakes, might some people go out of their way to ensure that disadvantaged groups are recognized?

Kellogg professor Nour Kteily suspected they might. Specifically, he hypothesized that the more people prioritize social equality, the more they might actively promote the accomplishments of women and people of color, even if this meant promoting the accomplishments of men and white people less.

In a series of studies, Kteily and his colleagues find that people who are politically liberal—an ideology that previous research associates with greater concern for social equality—are more likely than political conservatives to tweet about or otherwise promote the accomplishments of athletes and scholars who are black or female.

“Political liberals have a natural affinity for targets that belong to groups that they see as socially disadvantaged, and a motivation to raise these groups’ position in society,” says Kteily, an associate professor of management and organizations. “Given this, we reasoned that they would want to emphasize the good things that those who belong to groups that are otherwise overlooked are able to do.”

Shining a Spotlight during the Olympic Games

Kteily partnered with Kellogg PhD student Kaylene McClanahan, Matthew Rocklage of Northeastern University, and Arnold Ho from the University of Michigan on a series of studies centered on this hypothesis.

In the first study, the researchers examined how people tweeted about a very specific set of successful people: individual gold medalists from the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Were tweets from liberals more likely than tweets from conservatives to be about gold medalists who are black or women?

“Olympic gold medalists are often celebrated as national heroes,” says Kteily. As such, they generate a considerable amount of praise and attention on social media, making them ideal study fodder. In addition, they are fairly diverse in terms of both race and gender, and their accomplishments are objective and clearly reflect high status.

“If Michael Phelps had won only a single bronze medal, given the expectations that people had of Michael Phelps, that might be seen as a disappointment,” Kteily says. “By focusing just on gold medals we could be confident that tweets about that target were tweets about an unambiguously successful target.”

The researchers first collected all of the English-language tweets about individual gold medalists after they’d won their first medal. This added up to more than half a million tweets from over 160,000 Twitter users. They then used a previously validated algorithm that determined users’ political ideology based on the people and Twitter handles that they followed.

“If you primarily follow, you know, the RNC, George Bush, Fox News, and other well-known conservatives and/or Republican individuals or groups, we can estimate to a reasonable probability that you’re fairly likely to be conservative. Conversely, if you follow the DNC, Barack Obama, MSNBC, and so on, we can estimate with some probability that you’re more likely to be politically liberal,” says Kteily.

Twitter users who followed politicians and groups across the political spectrum were estimated to fall somewhere in the middle.

“Both liberals and conservatives shift up when they read that disadvantaged minorities’ accomplishments tend to be overlooked, but the ideological difference that exists at baseline remains.” 

Next, researchers used another algorithm to estimate these Twitter users’ race and gender from their profile pictures. This was important for ensuring that any effect of ideology wasn’t driven by the well-established tendency of people to favor ingroup members over outgroup members. For example, they wanted to be sure that any link between being liberal and tweeting more about black athletes was specifically driven by being liberal, rather than by the fact that black people tweet more about other black people and also happen to be more liberal.

Political Ideology and Promoting Social Equality

So what did the researchers find? As expected, there was an ingroup–outgroup effect, such that female Twitter users were more likely to Tweet about female athletes, as were black Twitter users about black athletes.

Critically, however, the researchers also identified an effect of ideology: across all races and genders, individuals who were more politically liberal were more likely to promote athletes who were black or women.

“People are more likely to celebrate the accomplishments of members of their group, but the important part for us was that over and above this group-membership effect, we reliably find a very strong political-ideology effect,” says Kteily.

How strong? Tweets from liberals were twice as likely to be about black athletes as were tweets from conservatives, for instance. (Political moderates tended to behave more similarly to conservatives.)

The behavior of liberals and conservatives differed most when it came to the likelihood of tweeting about athletes who were both black and women as compared to tweeting about white male athletes, with liberals showing a much stronger proclivity to tweet about black women.

Kteily points to the idea of “intersectional invisibility,” where “the argument is that people that
have more than one disadvantaged group membership are particularly likely to be overlooked.” So, if liberals’ tweeting behavior is driven by their desire to raise the profile of the otherwise overlooked, it would follow that they should be particularly focused on highlighting black females’ successes.

Taking Ideology into the Laboratory

To better determine why political liberals behaved so differently from conservatives and moderates, the researchers decided to conduct a more controlled experiment.

They asked 788 participants—roughly half Republican and half Democrat—to read an article. Half read about how the accomplishments of women and racial minorities have been overlooked, while the rest read a neutral control article (about repairing concrete). Then, in what participants believed to be an unrelated task, they were told to imagine that they worked on a university’s media relations team. CNN was looking for a faculty expert on a specific topic, and it was their job to choose which of three faculty members to suggest. Two of the faculty profiles they were asked to choose among were of white men; one was of a black woman.

Those who’d been primed to consider how underrepresented groups are overlooked became more likely to promote the black woman than those who had read the neutral article, suggesting a desire to shine a spotlight on her expertise. This was true of both Republicans and Democrats. However, Democrats overall were still significantly more likely to select the black woman.

“Both liberals and conservatives shift up when they read that disadvantaged minorities’ accomplishments tend to be overlooked, but the ideological difference that exists at baseline remains,” Kteily says.

Finally, in a third experiment, the researchers dove deeper into the nature of this ideological difference.

More than 2,000 Twitter users—approximately half Democrats and half Republicans—completed the two-part study. In the first part, all participants were assessed on a range of measures, including their desire to raise the standing of disadvantaged groups, as well as their desire to avoid appearing prejudiced.

Then, a week later, they completed an ostensibly different task: watching a TED Talk video, and deciding whether to promote it on their own Twitter feed. Half of the participants watched a video with a white male astrophysicist; the other half watched a video featuring a black female astrophysicist. After watching the videos, participants were asked the extent to which they believed that the astrophysicists had had to overcome barriers in order to achieve success. They were then given the opportunity to tweet the video out to their followers.

The researchers found that, as predicted, liberals were significantly more likely to tweet about the black woman than the white man. Conservatives, on the other hand, tweeted about both astrophysicists at about the same rate.

Moreover, it appeared that liberals’ desire to raise the standing of disadvantaged groups was what drove this behavior. The researchers did not find evidence to support other potential explanations, such as a greater desire among liberals to appear unprejudiced or a belief that the black female astrophysicist had overcome more barriers, making her achievement more impressive and notable.

Social Equality Is More Top of Mind

How new is this phenomenon, given that movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo are now bringing heightened awareness to inequalities involving race and gender?

Kteily thinks these inclinations have been around for a while. He suspects that, in today’s polarized political climate, the effect of political ideology on behavior may be more pronounced. But, he says, many underlying differences between liberals and conservatives have long existed.

We know from a large body of work that political liberals tend on average to be more concerned with creating social equality between groups, and that’s data that goes way back,” he says. “I think that what this moment in time has brought up is a real salience and a social conversation around these issues that might make them sort of more top of mind.”

About the Writer
Jessica Love is editor in chief of Kellogg Insight.
About the Research
Kteily, Nour, Matthew D. Rocklage, Kaylene McClanahan, and Arnold Ho. 2019. “Political Ideology Shapes the Amplification of the Accomplishments of Disadvantaged vs. Advantaged Group Members.” Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences.

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