What We Call Racial Violence Matters – Here’s Why

Our research finds that the label used to describe an act of violence can change perceptions of it.

By Kiela Crabtree and Corina Simonelli

Kiela Crabtree and Corina Simonelli

With the fifth anniversary of the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, the nation still grapples with how to understand and remember the nine people killed in their house of worship on June 17, 2015.

The perpetrator of those murders has been sentenced to death, after being convicted on federal hate crime charges. But, in the aftermath of the killings, there was public uncertainty about how to describe what occurred. The murders certainly met legal definitions about what constitutes a hate crime, but there seemed to be a need for a stronger language to describe the massacre. 

President Barack Obama, in his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, remarked that the massacre at Mother Emanuel A.M.E., “was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress…”

In a previous study, we find evidence to suggest that violence against black people is more likely to be classified by the public as a “hate crime,” but that such incidents are also perceived as being isolated, less destructive, and also less impactful on society at large than an act of terrorism. This suggests that the label of “hate crime” might minimize the seriousness of racial violence and imply that those incidents do not stem from similar wide-spread networks and ideologies that are associated with terrorism. 

Does the label used to describe acts of violence such as these influence perceptions of the event? Here’s what our research suggests. 

Labels shift emotional responses to racial violence

Our January 2020 survey experiment asked 1,012 subjects to read a brief breaking news story about a fictional shooting with several casualties. In the experiment, we alternated whether we described the incident as a “hate crime,” a “terrorist attack,” or a “mass shooting.” We also alternated the race of the perpetrator and the victims, describing them as either white or black. Subjects read a tweet about the fictional incident and then answered questions about their emotional reactions, their own perceived likelihood of victimization, and what punishments they believed were warranted by the attack.

We find that, regardless of who perpetrated the attack, subjects reported higher levels of anger after reading about an incident labeled as a “hate crime,” when a white male perpetrator targeted a black university. We find that there are no distinct differences in anger when comparing “terrorism” and “mass shooting,” nor under those labels do the race of the victim or perpetrator influence levels of anger. 

While likelihood of personal victimization is slightly higher for those who see the hate crime condition with a white perpetrator, we see that this variable is not strongly influenced by treatments.

We also find that support for the death penalty to punish the shooting is significantly lower among subjects who read about a hate crime perpetrated by a black person. 

The interaction of race and label matter as well

But, do all people perceive violence the same way? We cannot take for granted that violence, and racial violence at that, is viewed the same way by members of different racial groups, especially when long legacies of violence are in play. 

Therefore, we also look at how these labels might elicit distinctive responses among white and non-white participants. Stratifying our sample this way, we find that there are distinct responses among members of different racial groups. Non-white respondents indicated greater support for the death penalty to punish the crime in all conditions that had a white perpetrator, regardless of the label. However, we see little difference across conditions among white subjects. 

Racial group attachment moderates these in a way that we might expect – the lowest support for the death penalty is among white subjects with high racial group attachment who read about a hate crime committed by a white perpetrator. Among non-white subjects we see that higher racial attachment is associated with greater support for the death penalty in all conditions with a white perpetrator. Support is consistent in conditions with a black perpetrator. 

Additionally, non-white subjects who read about an act of terrorism committed by a white actor reported a higher likelihood of victimization than white respondents in the same condition. 

We also find that anger is stable for all, white and non-white subjects, who saw a terrorism condition, regardless of if the perpetrator is white or black. 

Anger increases slightly among non-white people who saw a mass shooting targeting black people. But, anger is significantly higher among non-white people who read about a hate crime targeting black people, when compared to those who read about a hate crime targeting white people. We see no significant changes among white subjects across these conditions.

Labels can send a powerful message to the public 

While the label “terrorism” has come to be associated with acts of violence committed by Islamists, the term has long been used by black people to describe white violence against them. Regardless of legal parameters, we wondered if using the term “hate crime” to instead describe these acts minimizes public perceptions about them. Our research suggests that calling an act of violence a “hate crime” has little effect on perceptions of violence for white Americans. For non-white Americans, however, we find that this label is associated with greater anger in reaction to the incident. 

The boundaries of the law determined the charges levied against the perpetrator of the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. killings, but the press, politicians, and the public grappled for language to describe them. Our research suggests that while the the term “terrorism” seems more rhetorically evocative of a long history of violence against black people, it does not necessarily evoke greater anger than use of the term “hate crime” or “mass shooting.” In fact, among non-white respondents, “hate crime” elicits the greatest anger. 

Emotions hold powerful political potential, anger in particular has been shown to incite political participation. The words used to describe violence do matter, for the images and narratives they conjure, as well as the emotions they evoke.  

Kiela Crabtree (@kielacrabtree) is a PhD. candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan.

Corina Simonelli (@CorinaSimonelli) is a PhD. candidate in Political Science and the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

The words that made a difference in the 2016 election

What do voters really learn from the media about presidential candidates? A new book by experts from the University of Michigan, Georgetown University, and Gallup, Inc., Words That Matter: How the News Media Environment Allowed Trump to Win the Presidency, offers in-depth analysis and conclusions about the information that mattered most in the 2016 presidential election. 

Words That Matter is the collaborative work of eight authors: Leticia Bode, Ceren Budak, Jonathan M. Ladd, Frank Newport, Josh Pasek, Lisa O. Singh, Stuart N. Soroka, and Michael W. Traugott. The authors have expertise in a range of disciplines including public opinion, communications, public policy, and computer science, and they take different approaches to the study of campaign media. As a result, the book is nuanced in its handling of news content, social media posts, and survey responses. 

There are a number of reasons that the 2016 presidential campaign was exceptional. The media landscape has changed dramatically in recent years, with many people accessing and sharing news through social media. The authors find that news coverage during the 2016 campaign “was more negative than in recent previous presidential campaigns, consistent with these candidates being the most personally unpopular nominees in polling history.” 

Words That Matter guides readers through the media’s process of producing information, how that information gets to voters, and what information voters actually absorb. The authors argue that advances in media technology call for new ways to measure the information environment. They address this challenge through innovative surveys and content-analytic research techniques. 

This figure highlights the changing topics that Americans remember about Clinton since July. The x-axis shows the date and the y-axis the fraction of responses that fall into a particular topic.
This figure highlights the changing topics that Americans remember about Clinton since July 2016. The x-axis shows the date and the y-axis the fraction of responses that fall into a particular topic.

A key finding of the work is that the largely negative campaign played out differently for the two major party candidates: Donald Trump was confronted with a shifting but largely uninfluential series of scandals, whereas Hillary Clinton faced a single, stable, and influential scandal involving her use of a private email server. The authors show that the long-standing nature of the email scandal made it especially sticky in the public mind. They write “Even when there was other news about Hillary Clinton, the public thought about ‘her emails’—for months and months—indeed, starting before the election campaign was even underway.” 

Some scholars are skeptical that the media have the power to influence votes, whereas others believe that campaign messaging can have a large effect. The authors show that not all voters are equally open to influence. The most politically-engaged voters are steadfast, while the least engaged are difficult to reach at all. “The fact that middle- and low-engagement voters are the most susceptible to influence,” write the authors, “also helps us understand why the topics given heavy attention in the media environment can be consequential.”

News stories that are repeated over a long period of time are the most likely to be noticed by people who are not highly engaged with politics. The authors also find that telling people how to vote is less effective than simply changing the subject. Voters who don’t follow the news carefully may not remember the details of various scandals, but they do tend to notice if one specific issue garners sustained coverage. Those sustained scandals stand out as more important when voters make their choice. 

The authors conclude that media content can indeed shift voter behavior for some voters, and that in a close election like the 2016 presidential election, these effects can be of real consequence. 

Not which ones, but how many?

Perspective on research from Guoer Liu, doctoral student in Political Science, and recipient of the 2019 Roy Pierce Award 

Guoer Liu

“Not which ones, but how many” is a phrase used in list experiments instruction, where researchers instruct participants, “After I read all four (five) statements, just tell me how many of them upset you. I don’t want to know which ones, just how many.” In retrospect, I was surprised to see that this phrase encapsulates not only the key research idea, but also my fieldwork adventure: not which plans could go awry, but how many. The fieldwork experience could be frustrating at times, but it has led me to uncharted terrain and brought insights into the research contexts. The valuable exposure would not have been possible without support from the Roy Pierce Award and guidance from Professor Yuki Shiraito

Research that I conducted with Yuki Shiraito explores the effect of behavior on political attitudes in authoritarian contexts to answer the question: does voting for autocracy reinforce individual regime support? To answer this question, two conditions need to be true. First, people need to honestly report their level of support before- and after- voting in authoritarian elections. Second, voting behavior needs to be random. Neither situation is probable in illiberal autocracies. Our project addresses these methodological challenges by conducting a field experiment that combines a list experiment and a randomized encouragement design in China.

In this study, list experiments are used instead of direct questions to measure the respondents’ attitudes towards the regime in the pre- and post-election surveys. The list experiment is a survey technique to mitigate preference falsification by respondents. Although the true preference of individual respondents will be hidden, the technique allows us to identify the average level of support for the regime within a group of respondents. In addition, we employ a randomized encouragement design where get-out-the-vote messages are randomly assigned, which help us estimate the average causal effect of a treatment. For effect moderated by prior support for the regime, we estimate the probability of the prior support using individual characteristics and then estimate the effect for the prior supporters via a latent variable model.

While the theoretical part of the project went smoothly and the simulation results were promising, the complication of fieldwork exceeded my expectation. For the list experiment survey, the usually reticent respondents started asking questions about the list questions immediately after the questionnaires were distributed. Their queries took the form of “I am upset by option 1, 2, and 4, so what number should I write down here?” This was not supposed to happen. List experiments are developed to conceal individual respondents’ answers from researchers. By replacing the questions of “which ones” with the question of “how many,” respondents’ true preference is not directly observable, which makes it easier for them to answer sensitive questions honestly. Respondents’ eagerness to tell me their options directly defeats the purpose of this design. Later I learned from other researchers that the problem I encountered was common in list experiment implementation regardless of research contexts and types of respondents. 

The rationale behind respondents’ desire to share their individual options despite being given a chance to hide them is thought-provoking. Is it because of the cognitive burden of answering a list question, which is not a familiar type of questions to respondents? Or is it because the sensitive items, despite careful construction, raise the alarm? Respondents are eager to specify their stance on each option and identify themselves as regime supporters: they do not leave any room for misinterpretation. To ease the potential cognitive burden, we will try a new way to implement the list experiment in a similar project on preference falsification in Japan. We are looking forward to seeing if it improves respondents’ comprehension of the list question setup. The second explanation is more concerning, however. It suggests the scope condition of list experiments as a valid tool to elicit truthful answers from respondents. Other more implicit tools, such as endorsement experiments, may be appropriate in those contexts to gauge respondent’s preference. 

Besides the intricacies of the list experiment, carrying out encouragement design on the ground is challenging. We had to modify the behavioral intervention to adapt needs from our local collaborators, and the realized sample size was only a fraction of the negotiated size initially. Despite the compromises, the implementation is imbued with uncertainty: meetings were postponed or rescheduled last minutes, instructions from local partners are sometimes inconsistent and conflictual. The frustration was certainly real. But the pain makes me cognizant of judgment calls researchers have to make in the backstage. The amount of effort required to produce reliable data is admirable. And as a consumer of data, I should always interpret data with great caution.

While the pilot study does not lead to a significant finding directly, the research experience and the methods we developed have informed the design of a larger project that we are currently doing in Japan.

I always thought of doing research as establishing a series of logical steps between a question and an answer. Before I departed for the pilot study, I made a detailed timeline for the project with color-coded tasks, flourish-shaped arrows pointing at milestones of the upcoming fieldwork. When I presented this plan to Professor Shiraito, he smiled and told me that “when doing research, it is generally helpful to think of the world in two ways: the ideal world and the real world. You should be prepared for both.” Wise words. Because of this, I am grateful for the Roy Pierce Award for offering the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the real world. And I am indebted to Professor Shiraito for helping me see the potential of attaining the ideal world with intelligence and appropriate tools.

Regime Threats and State Solutions

Post developed by Katherine Pearson and Mai Hassan. 

States can exert powerful social control over citizens. In her newly-published book, Regime Threats and State Solutions, Mai Hassan demonstrates how leaders use their authority to manage bureaucrats to advance their policy and political goals.

By controlling which bureaucrats are hired, where they’re posted, how long they stay in a post, and who gets fired or promoted, leaders can induce the bureaucratic behaviors that will help keep them in power. 

Focusing on Kenya since independence, Hassan uses qualitative and quantitative data gleaned from archival records and interviews to show how the country’s different leaders have strategically managed the public sector. The data show that the strategic management of bureaucrats existed under the one-party authoritarian regime beginning with Kenya’s independence in 1963, and continued after Kenya’s transition to an electoral regime in 1991. Under both regime types, leaders were able to co-opt societal groups that are needed for support and coerce the groups most likely to challenge the regime.

Haasan examines how leaders rely on bureaucrats to manage popular threats against the leader such as protests and strikes. First, she argues that leaders assign bureaucrats with deep social bonds to those areas where the leader needs to co-opt the local population. These deep social bonds compel bureaucrats to work on behalf of the area. But in areas that need more coercion, the leader tends to prevent the posting of bureaucrats with deep local roots because those who have deep roots will be unwilling to coerce locals. 

Second, she finds that the parts of the country that are most strategically important for the leader — and thus, the areas of the country where bureaucratic compliance is needed most — are staffed by the most loyal bureaucrats, those who are most willing to help keep the leader in office. Leaders can also neutralize the risks of disloyal bureaucrats by carefully managing where potentially disloyal officers are posted and how long they stay in their posts. 

Why would a leader hire or promote disloyal bureaucrats in the first place? Hassan addresses this question by showing that most state bureaucracies are not actually packed with the leader’s in-group members, who tend to be the most loyal. Elite threats, such as coups, tend to be more pressing than popular ones. Leaders can appease rival elites by hiring and promoting bureaucrats who are loyal to elites other than the leader. Strategically posting and shuffling bureaucrats allows the leader to recruit potentially disloyal bureaucrats in order to temper elite threats, while still relying on loyal bureaucrats to prevent popular threats where they are most likely to emerge.

Overall, Hassan’s analysis shows how even states categorized as weak have proven capable of helping their leader stay in power. Her work demonstrates how the strategic management of bureaucrats solves both elite and popular threats, and in doing so, highlights why bureaucrats must be taken seriously. States may assert power, but states do not act: bureaucrats do. 

Maasai Remix

Post developed by Kelly Askew and Katherine Pearson 

Maasai Remix, a documentary directed by the award-winning team of filmmaker Ron Mulvihill and anthropologist Kelly Askew, follows three Maasai individuals who confront challenges to their community by drawing strength from local traditions, modifying them when necessary, and melding them with new resources. 

The three subjects of this documentary live in different settings. Adam Mwarabu advocates for Maasai pastoralists’ rights to land in international political spheres. Evalyne Leng’arwa pursues a college education in the U.S., having convinced her father to return 12 cows to a man contracted to marry her. Frank Kaipai, the village chairman, faces opposition as he promotes secondary school education and tries to save the village forest. Sharing a goal of Maasai self-determination in an ever-changing world, Adam, Evalyne, and Frank innovate while maintaining an abiding respect and love for their culture.

In a companion film produced by Kelly Askew entitled The Chairman and the Lions, the focus was on the many challenges faced by Parakuyo Maasai, including marauding lions, landgrabbers, illegal loggers, male youth out-migration and lack of education. By contrast, the message of Maasai Remix is one of hope and innovation, and of connected yet individual initiatives in addressing communal challenges. It champions the use of tradition as a mode of community development and as such offers a rebuttal to the widespread view that culture is always and only an obstacle to development initiatives. Quite the contrary, Adam, Evalyne and Frank illustrate through word and deed how traditions can be deployed as tools of empowerment. Thus, integrating their culture with modernist goals in a manner, not unlike the remixes of hip-hop DJs, Maasai Remix celebrates the achievements of these individuals and the lifeways of their community.

Panel discusses the Nineteenth Amendment’s legacy and current implications

Post developed by Katherine Pearson

A panel of prominent political scientists presented their research at the panel “One Hundred Years of Women Voting: The Nineteenth Amendment’s Legacy and Current Implications” on Monday, February 24, 2020. The experts discussed the political behavior of women leading up to and since the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted women the right to vote. Jenna Bednar, professor of political science at the University of Michigan and research faculty at the Center for Political Studies, moderated the discussion. The event was part of the U-M Department of Political Science Rubin Speaker Series and U-M Suffrage 2020 event series.

Mara Ostfled, Christina Wolbrecht, Angela Ocampo, and Corrine McConnaughy

Mara Ostfled, Christina Wolbrecht, Angela Ocampo, and Corrine McConnaughy

Popular views of women voters over the past 100 years, and what the evidence actually tells us about them

In her newly-released book, A Century of Votes for Women: American Elections Since Suffrage, Christina Wolbrecht, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, presents evidence to challenge some of the long-standing beliefs about the way women vote and engage in politics. 

In the first several decades of women’s suffrage in the U.S., understanding of women’s political behavior was based on rhetoric, not based on data, said Wolbrecht. Data does show that married women often voted as their husbands did. Political experts interpreted this correlation as evidence of political disinterest on the part of women, but this conclusion was not based on data. Following the belief that women didn’t form independent political opinions, Gallup used quota controlled sampling that undersampled women. The American Voter describes women as following their husband’s wishes rather than voting according to their own beliefs. 

Wolbrecht argues that these unsupported conclusions still matter today because these books are still read today. She emphasizes that although married women often vote as their husbands do, we don’t know who is influencing whom. 

Political Pioneers: Women of Color as Candidates and Elected Officials

Angela X. Ocampo, a research fellow in the department of political science and the Center for Political Studies, presented current research assessing the representation of women of color as political candidates and elected officials. “Women don’t get access to vote until their racial group does,” said Ocampo, noting that women of color were still denied the right to vote or hold elected office on the basis of race after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. 

Most research on women of color in elected office focuses on the federal level, but Ocampo, along with her research collaborator, Ana Oaxaca, is studying representation in local government. Their research shows that women are most likely to be elected from places that are protected by the Voting Rights Act. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which significantly weakened the Voting Rights Act, Ocampo sought to understand how the representation of women of color was affected at the local level. 

To answer this, she’s analyzing data on city councils in the 300 largest U.S. cities to isolate the factors that are associated with a high proportion of women of color council members. Women of color are underrepresented in city councils, making up only 10% of council members. Ocampo finds that the more Democratic a locality is, the higher the proportion of women of color and minority council members. Proxies of political power are also important. When there is a higher proportion of more minority voters in a city, the proportion of women of color and minority council members also increases. 

Ocampo concludes that gains have been made in representation, but parity is yet to be achieved. Representation of women of color and minorities depends on political pressures and the voting power of minority voters. She cautions that upward trends in the representation of women of color and minorities will likely be derailed by efforts to suppress minority votes. 

Hidden Politics: Women’s Organizing and the Shape of American Democracy

Corrine McConnaughy is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan and worked closely with many of the faculty during that time. 

McConnaughy said that to find examples of women doing political work in the period before suffrage, we must look beyond formal suffrage organizations. Whether political organizing was taking place within suffrage organizations or other organizations, historians find common themes in women’s political activity in the period before the nineteenth amendment. Women were doing crucial service work in their communities and creating innovative ways to gain power. Importantly, women were doing political work as women, but not unified by womanhood. 

The suffrage movement faced challenges because women were not seen as a promising voting bloc, McConnaughy said. Because so many people believed women would vote as their husbands did, no party stood to gain an advantage by allowing women to vote. For this reason, bi-partisan support was essential to gaining franchise. The ability to form coalitions with other groups also proved essential. Suffragists were well-organized and good at raising money, which made them attractive coalition partners. 

Why Women Oppose Policies that Support Women 

The final speaker was Mara Ostfeld, is a Faculty Associate with the Center for Political Studies and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science. She presented research she is conducting with two graduate students, Lauren Hahn and Sara Morell

Ostfeld framed their question: “In the 100 years that women have had access to voting rights, and in the context of women constituting the majority of voters in America, why hasn’t there been more progress for policies to provide women with equitable opportunities?” She cited statistics to illustrate the issue: 20% of women say that reports of the gender pay gap are overblown; one-third of women say that women who complain about sexual harassment create more problems than they solve; another third believe that at least half of the time that women demand equality, they’re actually seeking special favors. 

Family socialization is the key reason for these beliefs, according to Ostfeld. “Unlike other marginalized groups, women are not raised in women-majority environments,” she noted. 

Ostfeld, Morell, and Hahn conducted a survey to gauge how women believe their family members would react to taking pro-women positions, to assess how women perceive the social costs of their beliefs within their families. The survey also asked about the polices the women supported. Ostfeld found clear evidence that women who believed they will be stigmatized for embracing policies to promote gender equality are far less likely to support those policies. Even among women respondents who recognized the gendered disparities motivating the policies, they were still less likely to support policies promoting gender equality if they felt their family members would stigmatize them for doing so. 

ESC Center Tackles Ethical Questions about Tech 

Post developed by Katherine Pearson

Christian Sandvig, the Director of the new Center for Ethics, Society, and Computing (ESC), says he developed this new center “to reconcile the fact that I love computers, but I’m horrified by some of the things we do with them.” ESC is dedicated to intervening when digital media and computing technologies reproduce inequality, exclusion, corruption, deception, racism, or sexism. The center was officially launched at an event on January 24, 2020. Video of the event is available here

The associate director of ESC, Silvia Lindtner, elaborated on ESC’s mission at the event. “I’ve learned over the years not to shy away from talking about things that are uncomfortable,” she said. “This includes talking about things like sexism, racism, and various forms of exploitation – including how this involves us as researchers, and how we’ve experienced these ourselves.” 

ESC is sponsored by the University of Michigan School of Information, Center for Political Studies (CPS), and the Department of Communication and Media. CPS Director Ken Kollman called the new center “an exciting, interdisciplinary effort to ask and address challenging questions about technology, power, and inequality.” Thomas Finholt, Dean of the School of Information, said, “if you look at the world around us there are a seemingly unlimited number of examples where individual leaders or contributors would have benefitted dramatically from the themes this center is going to take on.” 

The wide range of disciplines represented among the ESC faculty is essential to its mission. “To have people in computer science, engineering, social science, and humanities interacting together on questions about the impacts of technology strikes me as the kind of necessary, but all too rare, collaborative efforts for generating new ideas and insights,” Kollman said. 

Christian Sandvig, Thomas Finholt, and Sylvia Lindtner cut the ribbon to launch the ESC Center

Christian Sandvig, Thomas Finholt, and Sylvia Lindtner cut the ribbon to launch the ESC Center

The launch event was comprised of two panel discussions featuring notable experts in technology and its applications. The first panel, “Accountable Technology — An Oxymoron?” explored the ways that big companies, the media, and individual consumers of technology hold the tech industry accountable for issues of equity and fairness. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Julia Angwin highlighted journalists’ role in investigating and framing coverage of tech, including her work to launch a publication dedicated to the investigation of the technology industry. Jen Gennai, Google executive responsible for ethics, fielded questions from the audience about accountability. danah boyd, Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder of Data & Society, and Marc DaCosta, co-founder and chairman of Enigma, rounded out the panel, which was moderated by Sandvig. 

During the second panel, “Culture After Tech Culture — Unimaginable?” Silvia Lindtner, Holly Okonkwo, Michaelanne Dye, Monroe Price, Shobita Parthasarathy, and André Brock debated the inevitability of technology’s impact on culture, and how the future might be reimagined. The panelists challenged the audience to think of technology from the perspectives of different cultures around the world, not just a single monolithic entity. Questions from the audience interrogated the ways the tech could be more inclusive.  

ESC organizers encourage students and faculty to get involved with the new center. A series of mixers to get to know ESC are scheduled through the spring. 

Top Blog Posts of 2019

Post developed by Katherine Pearson

Since its establishment in 2013, a total of 168 posts have appeared on the Center for Political Studies (CPS) Blog. As we approach the new year, we look back at the most popular topics of 2019. Listed below are the recent posts that you found most interesting on the blog this year.

1. Political Communication Meets Big Data

This figure highlights the changing topics that Americans remember about Clinton since July. The x-axis shows the date and the y-axis the fraction of responses that fall into a particular topic.How do voters make sense of the information they hear about candidates in the news and through social media? This question was at the heart of a collaboration between researchers at the University of Michigan, Georgetown University, and Gallup to study political communication that took place during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Results from the project will be published in a new book, Words That Matter, in May 2020.

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2. New Book Examines Ghana’s Political Trap

In his new book, Electoral Politics and Africa’s Urban Transition, Noah Nathan traces the unexpected political patterns that are emerging in urban Ghana. Despite a growing middle class and increasing ethnic diversity, clientelism and ethnic voting persist in many urban neighborhoods.

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3. Divided by Culture: Partisan Imagery and Political Evaluations

Increasingly, Americans associate partisan leanings with otherwise non-political objects. Dan Hiaeshutter-Rice, Fabian G. Neuner, and Stuart Soroka examine the consequences of these associations in their paper “Divided by Culture: Partisan Imagery and Political Evaluations”, which they presented at the Midwest Political Science Association meeting on Saturday, April 6, 2019.

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4. Angela Ocampo Examines the Importance of Belonging

The idea of belonging, or attaining inclusion, is the centerpiece of Angela Ocampo’s research. Her dissertation received the American Political Science Association’s (APSA) Race and Ethnic Politics Section’s award for the best dissertation in the field at the Fall 2019 APSA meetings.

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5. Computer simulations reveal partisan gerrymandering

Jowei Chen developed a new way to analyze legislative districts and determine whether they have been unfairly gerrymandered for partisan reasons. Chen, an Associate Professor of Political Science and a Research Associate at the Center for Political Studies, used computer simulations to produce non-partisan districting plans that follow traditional districting criteria.

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6. Improving Research on Subnational Violence with xSub

xSub, a new freely available resource, builds the infrastructure to compare data on political conflicts and violence at a subnational level (i.e., states, cities, and villages). This database of databases allows researchers to construct custom, analysis-ready datasets. xSub includes data on conflicts in 156 countries, from 21 sources.

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7. Portrait of a birther: White conservatives with political knowledge more likely to believe Obama conspiracy

White conservatives who not only have racial animus but are also knowledgeable about politics were the most likely group to believe that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, according to a University of Michigan Institute for Social Research study.

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8. Racial Dynamics in the American Context
: A Second Century of Civil Rights and Protest?

Drawing from published work that will be compiled as a new book, Black Politics After the Civil Rights Revolution, Dianne Pinderhughes explored the arc of 20th-century civil rights reform and the growing political incorporation of African Americans into electoral politics when she delivered the 2019 Hanes Walton, Jr. lecture.

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9. Toward a Typology of Populists

Classification of populistsThe rise in populism around the world has received much attention, but not all populists are the same. In a new paper, Pauline Jones and Anil Menon present an original typology of populists that goes beyond typical left-wing versus right-wing classifications.

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10. Incidental Exposure to Political News Increases Political Knowledge

We’re immersed in a media landscape full of choices. News, information, and entertainment are all at our fingertips. But does this mean that people are better informed about important issues? Brian Weeks, Daniel S. Lane, Lauren B. Potts, and Nojin Kwak conducted two surveys to answer this question.

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Shea Streeter examines the circumstances surrounding police violence and protest

Shea Streeter

Shea Streeter

Post developed by Katherine Pearson

Shea Streeter began her graduate work in political science as a comparativist interested in state repression around the world. When the protest movement in Ferguson, Missouri exploded after the killing of Michael Brown, Streeter turned her attention to police violence and protest in the United States. As a President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Michigan, she’s examining how race and gender shape the ways that people experience, perceive, and respond to incidents of violence.

“Racial animus is in the air we breathe,” Streeter says, “but when we look at police violence, we can get distracted by race and ignore other important factors.” Her dissertation included an experiment to examine how the race of victims of police violence determines whether the public sees the violence as just. Surprisingly, she finds that the race of the victims is less salient than expected. Instead, the social context strongly shaped the attitudes of the respondents. Those who were predisposed to consider societal and institutional forces were less likely to believe the victim deserved the outcome, compared to respondents who place sole responsibility on the individual. 

Racial differences in rates of protest 

Half of the people killed by police each year are white, and yet the rate of protest over white victims of police violence is very low. A dataset that Streeter is currently completing includes all publicly available information on police killings and any protests that happened in 2015-2016. For those two years, about a third of the police killings of African Americans led to some sort of protest, but when whites were killed by police, protests occurred only five percent of the time. “I argue that it’s the biggest racial gap related to policing,” Streeter says. “There are a lot of reasons we could point to why African Americans would be protesting. But why wouldn’t whites also be protesting when their community members are killed?” 

When conducting field research in several different cities in the United States, Streeter asked community organizers about protests for white victims of police violence. The organizers told her that they reach out to the families of white victims, but those families often do not want to be involved with protests. Instead, many white family members express understanding and forgiveness toward the police. Streeter makes sense of these reactions by tying them to the psychological concept of a belief in a just world. The idea is that people get what they deserve and they deserve what they get. Streeter observes that even when people who hold this belief lose a member of their own family, their trust in the police remains unchanged. “If you have these beliefs, it can be like a double loss,” Streeter notes, which may explain why there are fewer protests for white victims of police violence. 

The role of mentorship

Mentorship has played a large role in Streeter’s academic career. Christian Davenport became a mentor to her when she was a senior at Notre Dame. At that time, Streeter was thinking about her career but hadn’t considered pursuing research. While working as a research assistant for Davenport, he encouraged her to pursue graduate work in political science. Streeter cites this support as a key reason she decided to come to the University of Michigan. She also gives credit to David Laitin and Jeremy Weinstein at Stanford, who pushed her to study the United States when she was training as a comparativist. “I had confusion about what my identity as a scholar would be if I changed paths, but they put my fears to rest, so I give them a lot of credit for helping me pursue this research path,” Streeter says. 

Looking forward 

In addition to her ongoing research on police violence, Streeter is turning her attention to the ways interpersonal violence affects the way that people think and act politically. She sees connections between different types of violence, including mass shootings, domestic violence, and suicide. “We don’t often see these as political violence, but they affect how people operate in the world,” Streeter says. She’s especially interested in the ways violence affects people differently based on gender. Streeter’s work is innovative and varied, but united by a common theme, which she sums up as “How does violence affect our world, and what are the aggregate consequences of that? That’s the big picture.” 

Political Communication Meets Big Data

Post developed by Mike Traugott and Katherine Pearson. 

How do voters make sense of the information they hear about candidates in the news and through social media? This question was at the heart of a collaboration between researchers at the University of Michigan, Georgetown University, and Gallup to study political communication that took place during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. 

Mike Traugott, Ceren Budak, Lisa O. Singh, and Jonathan Ladd presented findings from the study at the Michigan Institute for Data Science (MIDAS) Seminar on November 14, 2019. The panel discussion, moderated by Rayid Ghani, covered results that will be published in a new book, Words That Matter, in May 2020. 

Rayid Ghani, Jonathan Lass, Lisa O. Singh, Ceren Budak, and Mike Traugott at the MIDAS symposium.

Rayid Ghani, Jonathan Lass, Lisa O. Singh, Ceren Budak, and Mike Traugott at the MIDAS symposium. 

Genesis of the project

The project began when Gallup contacted Mike Traugott, a scholar of political communication who works in the area of attention to media using survey methods. In the four months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, Gallup conducted 500 interviews per day, asking respondents whether they had heard, read, or seen anything in the last few days about each of the two major-party candidates. In addition, the research team analyzed a sample of tweets from the public and from journalists. Finally, they compiled a database of news articles about the election, and also conducted an analysis of fake news. 

Data visualizations were an important part of this work, said Traugott. As data was gathered and interpreted, the researchers created visualizations and analyses that were published on the Gallup website and in The Washington Post and other news outlets. Excellent graphics were essential to show complex data in an easily interpretable way. 

Interdisciplinary strengths

Researching political communication using big data and data from multiple sources was an exciting challenge for the members of the team. When survey respondents are asked to recall what they’ve heard, read, or seen, there is the potential for error stemming from everything from memory problems to social desirability bias. Working with an interdisciplinary team was an opportunity to use new methods to analyze big data and mitigate such errors. 

Closed-ended survey questions can be difficult to interpret; researchers sometimes try to find out what people actually mean by asking open-ended follow-ups. The surveys in this study only collected open-ended responses, allowing respondents to give more meaningful answers. With such a large sample of open-ended responses about what people remembered about the candidates, it was essential to find innovative ways to analyze the data.  

Lisa Singh and Ceren Budak, both computer scientists, contributed expertise in computational social science and experience working with social media data. A variety of techniques were used in the analyses contained in the book: frequent word analysis, topic analysis, network analysis, sentiment analysis, and more. The open-ended text from the survey responses was so noisy and short that the algorithms were not enough to interpret the results. It took a team effort to interpret the data through a semi-automated process. The team at Gallup and the political scientists sorted words into topics and created synonym dictionaries to clean the data and remove inconsistencies. Developing these tools to be applied in domains where the text is not as rich and complete will be a focus of future work. 

A long-lived narrative is worth more than many explosive stories

Ladd noted that by analyzing text data – tweets and open-ended survey responses – the research team found that people repeatedly remembered Hillary Clinton’s emails throughout the campaign. The fact that this one story dominated the narrative about Clinton seemed to have an effect on voters, and Ladd points out that Clinton echoed this finding in her book, What Happened, employing one of the project’s graphics in the text. On the other hand, people remembered many different news stories about Donald Trump over time. These stories appeared and disappeared quickly, and no one story made a big impression on respondents. 

This figure highlights the changing topics that Americans remember about Clinton since July. The x-axis shows the date and the y-axis the fraction of responses that fall into a particular topic.

This figure highlights the changing topics that Americans remember about Clinton since July. The x-axis shows the date and the y-axis the fraction of responses that fall into a particular topic.

Another major finding of the study is that there were differences between the news that survey respondents recalled hearing and the text analysis of media articles, and both of those were different from what journalists were tweeting about. By analyzing streams of data from multiple sources, the researchers were able to conclude that journalists’ tweets and the text of newspaper articles did not favor either candidate. 

Singh noted that Trump was masterful in keeping the issue of Clinton’s emails central to the campaign narrative. When the researchers analyzed new articles and tweets from journalists, email was not a dominant topic, as it was in the survey responses. She said that it was the Trump campaign that kept the narrative about the emails in the public’s awareness. 

Connecting media coverage and voting behavior

Members of the research team who were not available to participate in the panel discussion contributed further analyses to the book. Stuart Soroka conducted a sentiment analysis of the open-ended responses, and Josh Pasek did work on story life and length of time an item was in the news. One limitation of this study was that Gallup did not collect any direct measure of voter preference, although they did collect favorability ratings of the candidates every day, which gave the researchers an indirect measure to work with. There was a lagged relationship between the net sentiment of Trump and Clinton in the news and the relative favorability of the two candidates. 

We can’t know how fake news influenced votes, said Budak, who analyzed social media data in the 2016 election cycle. In a chapter on fake news in Words That Matter, she examined Clinton’s net favorability and found a strong relationship between fake news and her favorability rating. Specifically, Budak found that Clinton’s favorability would move first, and fake news responded to that. The creators of fake news were attuned to what was happening in the campaign and responded accordingly. 

When Budak analyzed retained information data according to political leanings, she found that Republicans retained fake news coverage about Clinton, but not for Trump. The conversation about Trump changed a lot over time, while the narrative about Clinton stayed focused on her emails. According to Budak, “we can’t say fake news caused the outcome of the election, but it shaped the agenda.”