Debates about the causes of poverty, ways of addressing it, and the perceptions of the people within its group are as old as civilization itself. They appear in our faith traditions and texts, in our political contests, in social movements, in our literary works, and in news and entertainment media. Not surprisingly, they also appear in the social media that have emerged as influential forces in the 21st century.
Social media, however, are qualitatively different from virtually any that came before. For the first time in human history, platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and blogs enable everyday people to communicate with millions of other people around the globe—and allows those people to communicate back.
Understanding the public conversation about poverty in this evolving communications landscape requires a nuanced understanding of social media discourse. That is the purpose of this report: to analyze and explain social media content, engagement, and trends on poverty and poor people, with an eye toward opportunities for informing the debate.
Many of the questions examined in the report are the same as those that we would ask about traditional media (which we do in a companion report released with this one)6: What are the dominant narratives, arguments, and storylines? What are the most active outlets on the issue? Other questions are unique to social media: What types of statements or stories were audiences most likely to share or react to? Which went “viral” across networks? Where are people organizing and taking online action on poverty? These are relatively new frontiers but critically important to understanding where the public stands. And for people engaged in advocacy to address poverty, they provide critical new insights.
Analyzing social media discourse about poverty yields fascinating new information, insights, and recommendations, which we share in the pages that follow.
In order to understand both users’ engagement on poverty in social media and the attitudes reflected by their engagement, we’ve divided our findings into two broad categories:
- Overarching Trends and Analysis of Timeline Among the Most Highly Visible Content
This sample includes Twitter updates from users in the 98th percentile for number of Twitter followers,7 news articles in the 98th percentile for number of comments, and news articles in the 98th percentile for number of likes or shares. We present the most influential storylines and dig deeper into the spikes in public discourse over the period studied, and analyze some of the content that reached or engaged the most people, as indicated by number of Twitter followers, number of likes or shares, or number of comments. This analysis also includes a section on “powerful voices,” which presents individuals or organizations with large followings who speak out on poverty-related issues.
- General Public Discourse About Poverty: Public Expression
This second section offers an analysis of the public expression based on samples of all online content generated by the wider public that was related to poverty in the target time frame, irrespective of audience reach. We analyzed content by platform, including Twitter posts, public Facebook pages, and user comments found on YouTube, blogs, and mainstream news sites.
To provide context for the methodology and findings of our analysis, we first provide a short overview of recent data on the online public Internet uses, and engagement in civic activities, particularly through social media.
A vast majority of Americans are online; 85 percent of U.S. adults 18 and over use the Internet. More than two-thirds (69 percent) of those who are online are also on social networking sites. Social networking sites are increasingly used to distill, evaluate, and respond to news.8
According to Pew, “For most politically active SNS users, social networking sites are not a separate realm of political activity. They are frequently active in other aspects of civic life. Even as online platforms have grown more prominent in political affairs, Americans’ day-to-day political conversations mostly occur offline.”9
Thirty-nine percent of all adults in the United States took part in some sort of political activity on social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter in the 12 months preceding the Pew survey in August 2012, including:
- “Liking” or promote materials posted by others related to political or social issues (23 percent)
- Encouraging others to "like" (21 percent)
- Posting opinions or comments on political or social issues (20 percent)
- Reposting content related to political or social issues (19 percent)
- Encouraging others to take action (19 percent)
- Sharing links to political stories or articles (17 percent)
- Belonging to a political group or a group working to advance a cause (12 percent)
- Following elected officials, candidates, or other public figures (12 percent)10
Social networking sites also are having an impact on users’ behaviors: more than two in five (43 percent) decided to learn more about a political or social issue, and almost one in five (18 percent) were driven to take action involving a political or social issue because of content they encountered on a social networking site.11 Online communicators and adults who are politically active on social networks particularly are more likely to lean progressive on social justice issues such as marriage equality and women’s right to choose (see Table 12 in Appendix A).
Blacks and whites have similar rates of participation when it comes to direct involvement in political activities or engagement in political issues through online social networks.12
Except where otherwise noted, our research team collected online content using Radian6. The Radian6 platform is a subscription-based tool for monitoring and analyzing online content, including public Twitter feeds, public Facebook pages and discussions, blogs and their comments, publicly available online mainstream news sites and comments, forums and forum replies, videos, and images.
In addition, some information included in this report comes from existing attitudinal tracking surveys and recent public opinion studies by reputable, nationally known research organizations, media outlets, and advocacy groups; all of the data are publicly available. These studies meet The Opportunity Agenda’s standards and best practices for quality and objective public opinion research, including appropriate sample size, a methodologically sound design and research instrument, and inclusion of a balanced questionnaire for surveys.
For the purposes of this report, “deep poverty” is defined as Americans with incomes less than half of the poverty level.13 The time frame of the search is from October 1, 2012, to September 30, 2013. To cast a wide net for poverty-related content, the search terms used for all media are:
(poverty) OR (“poor people”) NOT (“world poverty” OR global OR international).
Some additional search terms were used for the analysis of Twitter content because of that platform’s brevity. For further information, please see the appendix.
This analysis uses different, interchangeable terms to describe a racial category in an attempt to be consistent with the terminology used in each study cited, when applicable. The same is true for references to sexual orientation. This report uses the racial categories utilized by the federal government, which have been largely adopted by opinion research. The categories are defined as follows:
- White: any person who self-identifies as white only and non-Hispanic
- Black: any person who self-identifies as black only14
- Hispanic: any person of any race who self-identifies as Hispanic15
- Asian: any person who self-identifies as Asian only16
6 A Window of Opportunity: Media and Public Opinion on Poverty in America, Media Analysis (pp. II-1 – II-28), June 2014, The Opportunity Agenda.
7 The average number of followers per Twitter user is 208 (http://expandedramblings.com/index.php/march-2013-by-thenumbers-a-few-amazing-Twitter-stats/#.UvhvJPldWa8).
8 Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, Understanding the Participatory News Consumer.
9 Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, Understanding the Participatory News Consumer.
10 Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, Civic Engagement Tracking Survey 2012.
11 Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, Civic Engagement Tracking Survey 2012.
12 Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, Civic Engagement Tracking Survey 2012.
13 Aaron Laudan, Wendy Jacobson, and Margery Austin Turner, “Addressing Deep and Persistent Poverty: A Framework for Philanthropic Planning and Investment.” Urban Institute, 2013.
14 Terms “Black” and “African American” are used interchangeably.
15 Terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” are used interchangeably.
16 Terms “Asian” and “Asian American” are used interchangeably.