Why was “African Americans” a trending topic on Twitter?


A riff on Slate's infamous "Brown Twitter Bird", inspired by their “How Black People Use Twitter”-piece.

At any point throughout the day, Twitter lists the ten most popular “topics” being discussed on its micro-blogging service. As soon as they rolled out this feature, I opted to see a more specific list of what was popular in Washington, D.C. vs. a world-wide compilation of hot topics.

This afternoon, I noticed that “African Americans” was trending. Initially, all the tweets I read regarding that topic had to do with yesterday’s election, specifically a rumor that only 4.7% of African Americans voted. There was no source for the statistic and it was on fire, showing up in hundreds of tweets, every minute. There was also some consternation being expressed at the lack of African Americans in the Senate. I chose to focus on the former issue, and collected some tweets:

According to this Washington Post article, the number was 10%, not 4.7%:

There was a slight drop in support from another strongly pro-Obama group: black voters, who made up 13 percent of the electorate in 2008 compared with 10 percent in 2010.

Another interesting fact to keep in mind: a quarter of all Twitter users are African American, which is almost double the percentage of Americans who are black. While it’s always good to be self-aware and open to self-critique, it’s a shame that such a flawed, flat-out wrong statistic gained traction on a medium that is so popular with young people of color, many of whom believed the lie about not voting– and all it implied.

  • http://twitter.com/SaheliDatta Saheli Datta

    Making up 10% of the voting electorate can’t meant that only 10% of registered African Americans voted. ~ 90 odd million people, so 10% of that is approximately 9 million voting African Americans. Voter participation in this midterm election was supposed to be 42%, so if 90 million = 42%, the total eligible voter pool was 214 million, and 13% of that means there are probably 27 – 28 million registered African Americans. 9 million out of 27 million is much closer to 32- 33% participation rate, not a measly 4.7%. That’s pretty comparable to the general rate of 42%, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the discrepancy is due to being disproportionately burdened by the factors that depress voting for the less than wealthy. It’s a working day, not a holiday, there’s no childcare, and polls are often hard to get to–all things we should fix. ( I got my statistics on the voting numbers from this AP article by Matthew Daly.). According to Wikipedia In 2000 there were 36 million African Americans in the united states, so assuming growth was steady, there are about 40 million *now*. Many of those people are under the age of 18, so they can’t vote, so that means over all participation was AT LEAST 25%. That strikes me as pretty respectable–especially when you consider wide spread evidence that African Americans have been disproportionately and unfairly disenfranchised b/c of the discrepancy in felony status laws regarding the use of crack vs. the use of cocaine, not to mention other less clearcut kinds of unfairness in the criminal justice system.

    Moral of the story: we need more numeracy in all of our communities. Support the Algebra Project.

  • http://twitter.com/SaheliDatta Saheli Datta

    In the above analysis of the over all participation rate (i.e. voters/eligible voters, not voters/*registered* voters) I’m assuming all African-Americans the census counts as such are citizens, which might be a more reasonable assumption than for any other ethnic group except I don’t think the census differentiates between century+ African-Americans and more recent immigrants. So the over all participation rate in the ‘indigenous’ African-American community might be much higher than 25%.

  • Student Activism

    I found some more specific numbers and came up with an estimate that 34% of African American adults voted yesterday:


  • http://twitter.com/razibkhan razib khan

    i would say “wow”, but i’m not surprised. i employ numbers in my posts/comments a lot, and i’ve become very careful about typos by decimal places: usually people actually don’t correct the error!

  • http://www.innyvinny.com/ InnyVinny

    I hate that people automatically believe things they read on the internet. So, so sad.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=9635546 Lynn Cabrera

    Is the source of the rumor known?

  • themis

    The CBS article referred to in the above post stated 10% of blacks are votING… I suspect it was just a typo on the twitterer’s part.

  • http://www.twitter.com/Bellcv Carole Bell

    That original stat is really bizarrely inaccurate. Just to add to Saheli’s comment, it’s a completely different thing to say that African Americans comprised 10% of the electorate versus only 10% of African Americans voted. If only 10% of African Americans voted, that would mean they’d comprise a much tinier percentage of the electorate that showed up. There are 310 million Americans and African Americans comprise just under 12.7% of that or 39.6 mn (see 2009 population data on the Census Factfinder site at http://goo.gl/zO40V). Minors are roughly 25% of that total. So if 9 million African American adults voted out of a total of 28 mn registered AA voters, the 30-odd % participation should be about right. We should strive to make that higher but it’s no where near the levels originally alleged.

  • http://twitter.com/ebencom alex eben meyer

    your credit on the illustration is incorrect, it was art directed by http://www.twitter.com/bfnh

  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much for pointing that out! I am sorry for the error. I will change it to @bfnh.

  • http://twitter.com/ebencom alex eben meyer

    np. thanks for the edit.