Debating stereotypes: Online reactions to the vice-presidential debate of 2020

Diane H. Felmlee, Chris Julien, Sara C. Francisco

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


The 2020 Vice-Presidential debate afforded the opportunity to examine online reactions toward a woman of color, Kamala Harris, and a white man, Mike Pence, as they vied for the same position. We collected tweets from the Twitter API related to Harris and Pence, mainly using neutral hashtags. We examined keywords for gender and race slurs and conducted a multivariate analysis of tweet sentiment. Gender and racial slurs surface in both Harris and Pence datasets, showcasing the insidious nature of sexist and racist stereotypes that seep into online conversations regarding a high-status job debate. As anticipated, tweets regarding Harris contained a higher proportion of racist and sexist curse words, highlighting greater levels of harassment and “intersectional,” multi-ethnic/gender attacks. Racial insults targeting Blacks or Asians were more negative than those associated with Whites. Unexpectedly, tweets related to Harris were more positive in average sentiment than those regarding Pence. Yet, there were significantly more retweets, and more negativity of retweets, relating to Harris than to Pence, underscoring the relatively widespread broadcasting of derogatory messages about Harris. Overall, we found that harassing messages toward the candidates reinforced traditional race and gender stereotypes and bolstered the status of those who posted negative content by attaining more retweets. Harassers routinely invoked well-worn, stereotypical insults in their attacks, especially when targeting a multiracial woman.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0280828
JournalPloS one
Issue number1 January
StatePublished - Jan 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


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