When the Supreme Court handed down two rulings last Wednesday expanding marriage rights for gay couples, California was the happiest state about it, according to Facebook. That was no surprise, since one of the cases overturned the state's Proposition 8. What was unexpected was that close behind in happiness were Mississippi and Louisiana, two very conservative states. And it was suprising for good reason -- it wasn't really true.
As Americans took to Facebook in the millions to discuss the hot-button cases last week, the social media giant capitalized on the attention by quickly releasing statistics about gay-marriage-related postings on its site. Along with these numbers, Facebook created a "heat map" showing which states were the happiest in the hours during and right after the rulings were handed down. “People on Facebook across the U.S. expressed their happiness with the ruling in timeline posts,” a blog post noted under the map. A few media outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, included the map in their write-ups of the rest of the data.
The map measured the use of emoticons to denote positive emotions like “happy,” “wonderful” or “awesome” to determine that California, where the Supreme Court’s ruling on Proposition 8 relegalized same-sex marriage, was happiest -- a fact the Los Angeles Times included in its articles on the social media firestorm. But no one mentioned why Mississippi and Louisiana appeared thrilled too.
There are a few reasons these two deeply red states may be more supportive of gay marriage -- at least on Facebook -- than Americans generally assume. But it's Facebook’s methodology that likely overstated gay marriage enthusiasm in the Deep South.
When Facebook created the happiness map, it did so by measuring how many people used positive emoticons when posting, an option available in a drop-down menu when users compose updates to their timelines. But Facebook did not take into account what posts a smiley face was attached to. "It was a broad look at how many people were feeling happy in general, and not necessarily related to any one particular event," a Facebook spokesperson said in an email.
The correlation between happiness and the Supreme Court rulings seems pretty strong, particularly on a social media site used by young Americans who are generally more in favor of gay rights than older generations. But the map, and the stories that ran with it, make it seem like a case of direct causation, when in fact there is no proof. There’s no way to compare the data to happiness levels on a normal day, because this is the first such map that Facebook has made.
Gay rights advocates have scored a number of recent victories at the ballot box as well as in the Supreme Court, but those trends haven’t taken root in the South -- and certainly not in Mississippi and Louisiana.
Mississippi is a conservative and deeply religious state with few legal protections for LGBT people. In the Hospitality State, gay people can be fired by their employers and evicted by their landlords due to their sexual orientation. Mississippi also boasts the only county in the nation that, according to the 2010 census, did report a single gay couple. When a CNN reporter traveled to Franklin County to see what the straightest place in the nation is like, a gay man there informed him that "It's hell.” The man said, "I live openly, but I can't live with anybody or anything like that because they persecute you."
In Louisiana, support for gay marriage is low enough that U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a conservative Democrat who is up for re-election next year, is one of just three Democratic senators who do not support marriage equality. While her Democratic colleagues were all lining up to announcing their support for gay marriage earlier this year, Landrieu came up with a cryptic, hybrid position on the issue. "People should love who they love and marry who they want to marry," Landrieu told CNN in April. But, she added, "[m]y state has a very strong constitutional amendment not only against gay marriage but against gay partnerships. So I'm looking at the people of Louisiana trying to represent their interests.”
There is, of course, a counter-narrative about these states. An article by Mississippi’s Clarion-Ledger newspaper detailed the elated reactions of gay Mississippians to last week’s rulings. Polls show that support for gay marriage is stronger among younger Americans, the same demographic that is likely to be actively posting on Facebook in a state, like Mississippi, where overall use of the Internet and social media is lower than many other states. “Younger folks are more supportive of [gay marriage], though that is changing,” said Kevin Nix, campaign media director at the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group. Support is also “increasingly bipartisan and that a strong and decisive majority nationally support it,” Nix said. “So if you look at those three factors, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mississippians -- if they were happy just like the rest of the country was.”
Despite Franklin County’s apparent lack of gay couples, Mississippi actually has the highest percentage of gay couples raising children of any state -- likely the consequence of LGBT Mississippians having children with an opposite-sex partner but then raising them with their same-sex partner. Essentially, Mississippi may not be moving toward same-sex marriage at the same speed as other states, but it is on the same path.
In addition to the LA Times, which accurately noted that the map referred to happiness mentions in general and not on particular posts, a Google search reveals that two other sites, the gay magazine dot429 and UtahPolicy.com, also picked up the infographic. As of Wednesday morning, the original Facebook post with the map had 293 “likes.”
Pema Levy is a senior politics reporter. Before joining the International Business Times, Pema covered the 2012 elections at Talking Points Memo and wrote about politics at...