Racism Online: Can exposure to racist content on shock humor websites affect perceptions towards race?
Student Researchers

Jill Baumgardner, Frankie George, Sam Lolla, & Doug Feldman (Undergraduate Students)
This paper is based on a project from an undergraduate Media Effects course.

Faculty Supervisor

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar


Our study examined several areas. First, it examined the relationship between exposure to online racist content and perceptions towards race. Second, it examined if people would expect others to be affected by online racist content. Third, it examined whether or not people thought people would be more affected as social distance increased. Fourth, it examined whether or not those with preference of their own race would find racist online content humorous. Fifth, it examined whether or not those with higher internet literacy would find racist online content humorous.

REsearch Question and Hypotheses

Research Question: Is there a connection between exposure to racist material and the perception one has about race and how one feels others perceive race?

H1: Subjects exposed to the racist condition will indicate higher preference for their own race on the Implicit Association Test.

Third-person effect
H2a: Subjects will believe others to be more influenced by racist content on 4chan.org than themselves.
H2b: Subjects will believe those of greater social distance from themselves to be influenced more by racist imagery on 4chan.org

Humor issues
H3a: Subjects who scored high preference for their own race will indicate greater humor and entertainment scores for racist content.
H3b: Subjects who indicated higher internet literacy will indicate greater humor and entertainment scores for racist content.


We manipulated a message board from the website http://www.4chan.org so that it was duplicated into three different conditions. The first condition contained the original text and images in the thread, neither of which were offensive. The second condition contained the original text, plus the addition of several photographs that were also not racist. The third condition contained the original pictures, plus several very racist pictures. After participants examined the thread which they were randomly given, they were taken to our survey. The survey asked questions related to how funny they thought their thread was, how insulting it was, how much they understood the thread, how significant they thought the thread was, the intelligence of the thread, and how relatable they felt with the content. After they answered those questions, they were given the link to the Race Implicit Association Test. The test, located on the Harvard website, examined implicit preference for white people or black people. After they finished, we asked them to specify their results.


We tested the first hypothesis (H1) with a one-way ANOVA test, checking for Condition and IAT results. Condition 3 had IAT results more strongly associated with White preference compaired to Black preference (Table 1). These results were not significant.

We tested the second and third hypotheses (H2a and H2b) with a distribution analysis. Most participants believed they themselves would be affected less than other people. It also revealed that as social distance increased, the more participants thought those people would be affected (Table 2).

We tested the fourth hypothesis (H3a) with another one-way ANOVA test, checking for level of humor by Condition. The test revealed that participants exposed to Condition 3, the racist condition, gave higher scores for humor than the other conditions. These results were significant (Table 3)

We tested the fifth hypothesis (H3b) with leverage plots. The first plot showed that as the number of hours individuals spend on the internet increases, the level of humor did not increase. Thus, H3b was not supported. However, the second plot we ran revealed that those who are familiar with the 4chan website did find the content humorous (Tables 4 and 5). Therefore, those with more familiarity with the website were more likely to indicate higher score for humor.



From this study, we learned that, first and foremost, finding humor in racist material does not necessarily make a person racist. Many times, people feel sorry for laughing at jokes that are considered offensive, such as racist jokes. Our study helps argue the assumption that people who think racist humor is funny are automatically racist.

We also learned that it’s normal for people to assume they would be less affected by racist content than other people. This is just another example of the third-person effect because they believe others would be more influenced by racist material than themselves. In this case, the reason for the third-person effect is because of the concept of unrealistic optimism- individuals wanting to preserve a positive self.

Finally, the study concluded that those who spend more time online would not necessarily think the content was funny.  In fact, we found that the participants with the most hours spent online per day were the people who least thought the content was funny. This would be interesting for further study, because one would think that those who spend more time online would be more likely to spend time in internet forums such as 4chan. Perhaps the reason is because they have seen so much offensive material already, that they are bored with it or desensitized?

For more details regarding the study contact

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar by e-mail at sss12@psu.edu or by telephone at (814) 865-2173

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Media Effects Research Lab at College of Communications, Penn State University