On how to be racist

— Don’t worry, this is not an actual tutorial but looks at how racism is part of social media postings and how we perceive that.

If you are reading this, you are probably online and browsing the internet. Maybe you just checked Facebook or Twitter, maybe you are on your phone. Being online and interacting on social media platforms is the most normal thing of the day for many people. It was just a matter of time until politicians started to make use of that and used different platforms for their campaigns. That all started in some way with Barack Obama in 2008, but that’s a different story.

Social Media is everywhere — Picture: Jason HowieSocial Media Apps / flickr.com unter CC BY 2.0

Maybe you just experienced this in the last German election. Politicians are now more often interviewed for YouTube, post pictures and statements, or share live videos. Successful social media campaigns in politics are often — and shockingly — connected to parties of the radical right and their message is mostly the same: Our country is in danger, there are too many foreigners, we have to do something. In some cases, racist remarks are very obvious and you can find them all over Facebook. In other cases, however, the racist part is easily overlooked — this form is what researchers call “new racism”1,2. This is not only scary but also quite dangerous. If you read something on the internet over and over again, you are likely to believe that it is true and some words or phrasings may even stick in your mind3. Especially, if you are already concerned about something.

I was shocked about how easily political groups share online messages against immigration and how many users seemed convinced about everything they read. That’s why I wanted to take action, understand the problem and raise awareness — this is where linguistics kicks in! Researchers analysed many different texts about anti-immigration and they found that specific words and phrases are often used to make their arguments sound believable and not too negative. Such features are, for example, using group references (e.g. the foreigners, criminals or swear words such was wogs or ragheads), the creation of in- and out-groups (e.g. we vs. them, British people vs. foreigners), usage of metaphors to intensify statements (e.g. floods of immigrants) or argumentation strategies to make something sound believable (e.g. I have nothing against immigrants, but). This research field is called Critical Discourse Analysis. You can read more about it here.

As an example for my research project about racist discourse, I decided to analyse online social media campaigns on Facebook supporting the Brexit vote. I found a lot of different statements with an anti-immigration attitude. Those statements formed the basis of my study. For each statement, I identified the common features of anti-immigration discourse. In each statement, I picked one feature and changed it, because I wanted to know what difference it makes if certain words or phrases are used. For example, one Facebook post said Britain could be forced to take half a million refugees – is that already a negative thing to say? And what happens if I change a bit and say Britain could be forced to take half a million migrating terrorists? I expected that most of the people agree on what they believe is negative or racist.

I asked 102 British people to read through the collected original and varied Facebook statements and to state if they perceived them as racist. I designed an online questionnaire and used a six-point rating scale to collect my data. It looked rather unspectacular:

Screenshot from my survey

As you can see, participants could also explain their rating with a comment. Since racism is a topic that many people do not like to talk about, they could decide if they wanted to leave a comment to explain themselves. The rating scale makes it easy to see if the changes I made to the statements had an effect.

Some things I found were not surprising: If very negative words are used to describe foreigners or a reference to a particular country is made, participants rated the statements as racist. No matter if this was the original  Facebook statement or something I changed. As soon as the words used were not as negative, opinions changed. My participants often said that the use of one specific word made a statement racist. So, when talking about a group of people saying something like All Mexicans are thieves or Those ragheads steal our jobs is likely understood as racist. Once you change the statements a bit to They are all thieves or Those immigrants steal our jobs it is often not perceived as racist anymore — even though the same group of people is targeted. Participants often commented that racism is connected to mentioning a specific race. Researchers disagree and state that racism is not exclusively limited to stating one specific race anymore. Today, racism also targets groups of different race or different religion and justify it by saying “This is okay to say even though it’s negative because we do not mention a race”.

Results also showed that there is a diverse understanding of what is racist and what is not, and that there is quite a lot of disagreement among my participants, especially concerning the subtle forms I previously mentioned. Also, if someone believes a statement to be true, it is mostly not considered racist and if someone believes a statement to be untrue, it is more likely to be perceived as racist. The context of the situation also influences the perception. So it matters by whom something is said and in what particular situation.

As you can see, the perception of discourse on anti-immigration is a complex topic. It gets even more complicated because there are so many things posted on social media and right-wing groups try to make their statements sound as acceptable as possible. To increase the awareness, it is important to talk about this topic and to inform about how language is used in discourse on race and immigration.



This blog post is based on my master’s dissertation:

Rauland, Judith (2017): “Not racist, just a little xenophobic”. Analysing Anti-Immigration Discourses of the 2016 Brexit Online Campaigns. Unpublished Master’s dissertation, University of Bonn.

1 Jiwani, Y., & Richardson, J. E. (2011). Discourse, ethnicity and racism. In: Van Dijk, T. A. (Ed.). Discourse studies: A multidisciplinary approach (2nd ed.) (pp. 241–262). Los Angeles/London: Sage Publications.

2 Van der Valk, I. (2002). Difference, deviance, threat?: Mainstream and right-extremist political discourse on ethnic issues in the Netherlands and France (1990-1997). Amsterdam: Aksant.

3 Fetzer, A. (2014). Media discourse in context. In: Hart, C., & Cap, P. (Eds.). Contemporary critical discourse studies (pp. 365–384). London/New York: Bloomsbury.

Picture credits:

Featured image: Pixabay CC0.


Judith Rauland holds an MA in Applied Linguistics from the University of Bonn. She is interested in the usage and perception of language used on social media platforms and the possible influence on the users’ opinions.

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