5 ways advocates can use Twitter to elevate the link between racism and childhood trauma

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Nearly 12 years after Twitter first launched in 2006, it has become a global behemoth with 330 million monthly active users, supporting 500 million Tweets every day. Tweets are now a part of daily life, whether they are public conversations about social movements, individual commentary about current events, or political announcements from elected officials.

Because advocates are increasingly leveraging social channels like Twitter to influence policy decisions, researchers at Berkeley Media Studies Group set out to see how the platform is being used to highlight the connection between two critical health and social justice issues: racism and trauma. We know from research on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that racism, childhood trauma, and toxic stress are closely linked and can have devastating implications for long-term health outcomes. But how effectively are childhood trauma advocates using social media to convey this message? Are they making the connections between trauma, toxic stress, and racism? Are they participating in the dialogue surrounding #BlackLivesMatter, which saw a meteoric rise on social media and arguably ignited the "movement moment?" And are childhood trauma and racial justice experts and thought-leaders listening to each other on Twitter to strengthen the movement and work toward solutions?

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"To find out the prevalence of social media conversations that were connecting racism to trauma and toxic stress, we monitored and compared Tweets that focused on childhood trauma, resilience, and #BlackLivesMatter," said Sarah Han, a BMSG research associate and report co-author.

"We discovered that race was barely mentioned in conversations on Twitter about childhood trauma, and trauma was barely mentioned in conversations about Black Lives Matter," said lead author and BMSG Senior Media Researcher Laura Nixon. "Only 2% of Tweets about childhood trauma mentioned issues of race and a fraction of a percent, 0.004%, of Tweets about #BLM mentioned trauma."

Research shows that prevention works, and there are currently countless policies, such as affirmative action and the Fair Housing Act, that are addressing and untangling the harmful effects of structural racism. However, in the few conversations that did connect race and childhood trauma, BMSG found that most missed the opportunity to discuss solutions. While some solutions referenced school-based actions, access to mental health services, or specific legislation, the majority of them were vague, unspecific calls that "something needs to be done." In Twitter conversations about Black Lives Matter and trauma, about a third mentioned solutions, which mostly centered on the need for self-care. While a vital component of maintaining one's physical and mental health in times of stress, these solutions don't address the role of cultural and institutional factors that can play a bigger role in shaping health outcomes.

"Our findings suggest the need to make the connection between structural racism, trauma, and clear policy solutions," Nixon said. "There are clear gaps and opportunities to address the intersection of childhood trauma and racism in conversations on social media."

Twitter userThe BMSG research team also conducted a social media network analysis of Twitter conversations about racism, trauma, and #BLM. They examined how Twitter users interacted with one another through Retweets, mentions, and comments to explore and map the structure of these dialogues.

"We wanted to know what people were Tweeting, but also how this information spreads and how these conversations develop," Han said. "We found that, overall, these Tweets were rarely Retweeted, and many of these social media discussions were happening in a void."

Elevating these connections is one small but important way that advocates can bolster their efforts to improve community health. Here are five practical steps you can take to bridge the gap on Twitter:

1. Become a thought leader on Twitter.

If you work on ACEs, childhood trauma, or toxic stress, let your expertise shine on Twitter. This begins with a current and professional presence on the platform.

  • Since it is often the first impression people will get of your organization if you are engaging with them on Twitter, treat your profile like an elevator pitch. Make sure your profile photo and cover photo are sized correctly, include the location of your organization, and write a description that clearly explains your work.
  • Most adults in the United States get news on social media. Stay up on current events, piggyback off of news that pertains to your topic, and share articles that others in the field should know about.
  • Develop messaging regarding race, trauma, and toxic stress in your organization so that you or your social media manager can clearly make the connection between race and health on Twitter.

2. Seek out diverse voices from #BLM and the ACEs community.

  • Carve out some time to follow and build relationships with authentic voices who are talking about the trauma of structural racism so you can see conversations as they happen. You can also see who advocates already follow or Retweet to find more.
  • Create Lists on Twitter. The "List" function on Twitter is a way to organize users that you want to follow by topic or theme. It's also a great way to lift up their voices to make it easier for other people to discover. Helpful lists could include members of the media who cover the topic, racial justice leaders, or politicians who focus on anti-discrimination work. By increasing your network and incorporating conversations that are already happening into your social media strategy, you are not only strengthening your coalition, you are lifting up historically marginalized voices and engaging with communities that are disproportionately impacted by childhood trauma.

3. Retweet and comment on Tweets about structural racism to make the connection between race and toxic stress.

  • Post content that adds value, and always strive to provide context for your Tweets — unless you already have an enormous following, posting a statement without a hashtag or a link is akin to shouting into the wind.
  • When you see a Tweet that deals with the impacts of childhood exposure to racism, amplify it. A Retweet will elevate the voices of the user, and commenting on the Retweet allows you to add context or commentary.

4. Share stories of advocates doing trauma work.

Be a connector! Incorporating Twitter into your existing communication and networking strategies can help to identify gaps and lift up solutions that are working. When an advocate in your network has a success story, or a local leader or decision-maker moves forward on trauma-informed policies, tag them on Twitter to elevate their hard work.

5. Start conversations.

Host Twitter chats and invite relevant stakeholders — imagine it like a digital version of a group of people having a conversation at a cocktail party. By hosting, you are signaling that the intersection of childhood trauma and racism is important, and by inviting your newfound network, you are elevating authentic voices.

How have you seen Twitter users addressing the intersection between race and childhood trauma? Let us know at @BMSG or info@bmsg.org.


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