How politics took over the DNA test conversation
Direct-to-consumer DNA testing kits have become increasingly popular over the past 5 years, and the conversation around them has grown substantially.
But the nature of that conversation has undergone a large-scale mutation, going from a science and benefit-oriented one in 2014, to a highly politicized one today, ensnared in identity politics and concerns about privacy.
Let’s take a look.
The online conversation about direct-to-consumer (DTC) DNA kits has grown 6-fold since 2014 (we looked at it worldwide, but 88% of it took place in the US and UK).
Five years ago, it was dominated by the scientific development of this technology (36%), as well as by people interested in discovering their heritage (33.3%), and insights about their genetic predisposition to certain kinds of conditions (14.7%).
Besides the DTC DNA kit brand names (23andme, ancestry.com), many other heritage-based keywords popped up: country, people, research, blog, family, tree, record. Flashes of ‘health’ ‘data’ and ‘Anne Wojcicki’ (the founder of 23andme) were discussed too.
At first glance, the DNA kit conversation today does not look too different.
For instance, 31% (compared to 33% in 2014) of recent posts also mentioned heritage, and the health segment has grown by a few percentage points (from 14.7 to 18.2%), while the politics and privacy segments grew roughly 10% each, eating into the share of science/tech conversation.
But while on the surface the conversation may look somewhat similar, it is in fact very different.
We uncovered these differences –which would have not been evident by running a simple social listening and historics query– by using our newest feature, Communities: this is an integration we developed with our partners at Audiense that allows you to match the results of your conversation analysis tool with the segments of the audience that make up that conversation, and then use those audience segments to filter the conversation.
Thanks to this tool, we were able to see how over the past 5 years, the heritage conversation has for the most part merged with the broader, extremely polarized political one.
Topics within this conversation range from Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s heritage (she has claimed Native American heritage, discovered through a DNA test, to much controversy), to the history of slavery and poorly thought-out advertising campaigns.
We were also able to see how different communities express their identity concerns in different ways: let’s take jokes, for instance, something that both the socialist and the comedy fans communities take part in. Socialists crack political identity jokes using DNA as the butt of the joke….
Leftist: "Race and gender are social constructs"
Same Leftist: *uses 23andme to prove that body has race gene*
— нaѕѕan ☭ (@stellar_tombs) April 25, 2019
…while comedy fans joke about their own identity and status in the world.
Excited To See My Uncle Who Works at the RV Dealership Has Entered The Democratic Primary am looking forward To Hearing Even More About His 23andMe Results
— famous french author Georges Cinnamon (@ThotStream) April 25, 2019
Or let’s take K-pop fans, one of the smallest communities in this conversation, who seem to have a very politically engaged view of the US government’s involvement in DNA. conversation, seen through the lens of their favourite bands, of course:
yoongi, bodily dragging bts away from 23andme: don't you fucking dare let the US government get your DNA https://t.co/L8mpvHFYTU
— clara (@triviyuh) February 10, 2019
It turns out, they care about this mostly because of threats to the band BTS, rather than because of the risk to their own security or privacy, as some other members of the political conversation. (BTS do also have a song called DNA).
Understanding how the various strands (sorry) of conversation (the “concerns” in the graphs above) map to the communities that participate in the conversation (see below) allows us to understand at both the global and granular level the texture of this complex conversation.
Today, the DNA conversation happening on Twitter is made up of 9 main communities divided into 3 larger interest areas: science, privacy, and identity.
Here’s what they look like:
- Lefties 19%
- Topics: advertisers, database, Elizabeth Warren
- This group discuss DNA in the context of social movements like Ancestry.com’s latest ads which stirred up controversy around the representation of slavery, or 2020 nominee Elizabeth Warren, who proudly showed her DNA test results in order to seem more relatable.
- Mainstream Media 15%
- Topics: risk, DNA, family
- This group are mostly interested in finding out about their own heritage and family. Conversation is centred around what they’ve discovered about health risks or countries their ancestors are from, with a smattering of concern about the privacy issues surrounding DNA mentioned in the media.
- Black culture 12%
- Topics: slavery, risk, racial ancestry
- This group are suspicious of both representation of the DNA conversation – particularly with how it relates to the ancestry of African-Americans and if it truly depicts the horror of slavery, and the privacy issues around giving your most personal data to a company you don’t know.
- Scientists 4%
- Topics: dual heritage, breast cancer, Roman Britain, twins
- This group are a lot more interested in how DNA relates to health and hereditary diseases – which makes up 34% of their conversation – and discuss the meaning of the DNA results and how it relates to larger health trends.
- Genealogists 3%
- Topics: ancestors, tree, research, name
- They are mostly interested in the sociological side of DNA – healthcare is a very low priority in this conversation – wanting to understand how families and cultures have changed in recent history.
- African American activists 3%
- Topics: slavery, groups, traditions
- This groups are equally as concerned with representing black history in the US respectfully as the black culture segment, and this makes up the majority of their conversation, taking a stand on these issues from an academic and activist stance.
- Comedy fans 4%
- Topics: feds, St Patricks, religion
- This group are preoccupied with privacy scares and identity, but express this through making jokes. For instance, the topic of “Feds” occurs so often because they are about making jokes about privacy scares.
- Socialists 2.5%
- Topics: data, society, database
- Their concerns are very similar to the Lefties and Mainstream Media groups: privacy, health and family, but this group express them through a critical lens to the government, particularly in terms of healthcare.
- K pop 3.5%
- Topics: BTS, Yoongi, US govt
- The 23 and me kits that were in the Grammys giftbag in February -and how BTS members would react to this – was a big topic of conversation for this community, who discuss a lot of similar topics to other communities, privacy, health and heritage, but using K-pop stars as a way of making it relatable.
We also looked at posts mentioning a series of DNA testing brands (23 and me, Ancestry.com, Family Tree DNA, My Heritage, Nat Geo Geno 2.0, Living DNA, African Ancestry).
23 and Me and Ancestry.com were certainly the biggest names out there:
Although My Heritage have recently made a valiant attempt for more recognition by helping the Backstreet Boys to find out about their DNA:
We love sharing our #BSBDNA with you! Now it’s time to take this whole journey literally, so we partnered with @MyHeritage to explore our individual DNA. Watch the video, then go to https://t.co/L2at5NTXmQ and use coupon code BSBDNA to get free shipping. #BSBDNA #MyHeritageDNA pic.twitter.com/2qeqhogibR
— Backstreet Boys (@backstreetboys) April 25, 2019
Brands like 23 and me and Ancestry are normalized, popping up at events like the Grammys and having people criticizing their latest ads and affiliations, making them easier than ever to politicize, and even meme-ify:
My 23andMe results said I was 60% looking for attention and 40% just bored
— Addatude (@addatude_) January 21, 2019