National Institute on Aging

Police Reports on Facebook Overrepresent Black Suspects Relative to Actual Arrest Rates

A recent study by researchers at the law schools of Duke University, Stanford University, and the University of Chicago finds that Facebook users are exposed to posts about serious crimes that significantly overrepresent Black suspects relative to local arrest rates. The results point to one mechanism by which the state itself may reinforce racial stereotypes about crime. Prior research shows that these stereotypes, in turn, may heighten demand for the state’s penal services.

Researchers analyzed nearly 14,000 Facebook pages maintained by law enforcement agencies in the United States. They found 100,000 posts that reported on the race of individuals suspected of or arrested for crimes. Between 2010 and 2019, Black suspects were described in 32 percent of Facebook posts but represented just 20 percent of all people arrested by these law enforcement agencies.

The researchers found that “most of the country was exposed to overreporting on Black suspects, with much of the Midwest and some of the South and mid-Atlantic regions experiencing it most intensely. Half of the jurisdictions experienced overreporting of 26 percentage points or greater. The only areas where users were not consistently exposed to overreporting were Hawaii and the Black Belt in the South.”

The authors state that “this overexposure occurs across crime types and geographic regions and increases with the proportion of both Republican voters and non-Black residents. Widespread exposure to overreporting risks reinforcing racial stereotypes about crime and exacerbating punitive preferences among the polity more generally.”

The full study, “Police Agencies on Facebook Overreport on Black Suspects” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It may be accessed here.

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