Twitter, politics and the public: Research roundup
Twitter has established a vital presence in popular culture — June 2012 saw fans sending a record-breaking 15,358 tweets per second (and 16.5 million tweets overall) during the final Euro 2012 soccer match. But to what extent does the microblogging platform influence discourse, policy and practices in the weightier areas of politics, government and civic life? And how exactly does the platform operate around these dynamics?
For several years now, researchers have been analyzing the effects of the microblogging information ecosystem, creating an increasingly large body of knowledge about Twitter. And issues of scholarly journals such as Information, Communication & Society, for example, have explored such social media issues in depth, summarizing the current state of knowledge.
It is worth keeping in mind that the conversation on Twitter — trending topics and hashtags, viral memes — often diverges from larger trends in social media and the blogosphere in general, according to the findings of the New Media Index at the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. A 2013 report from Pew summarizes these dynamics of divergence.
Further, as the Washington Post notes in an article titled “Twitter: A Live Megaphone for Lobbying Groups, Companies,” the microblogging platform is increasingly being used as a vehicle for shaping political debates.
The following are a representative sample of studies investigating how Twitter use may shape political and civic space and discourse:
“Twitter Use 2012″
Pew Internet & American Life Project
Findings: “As of February 2012, some 15% of online adults use Twitter, and 8% do so on a typical day. Overall Twitter adoption remains steady, as the 15% of online adults who use Twitter is similar to the 13% of such adults who did so in May 2011. At the same time, the proportion of online adults who use Twitter on a typical day has doubled since May 2011 and has quadrupled since late 2010 — at that point just 2% of online adults used Twitter on a typical day.
“Becoming a Tweep”
Information, Communication & Society, 2012
Abstract: “Despite much excitement about the microblogging platform Twitter, little is known about predictors of its adoption and how its uses relate to other online activities in particular. Using a unique longitudinal data set from 2009 to 2010 surveying over 500 diverse young American adults about their online experiences, we look at how adoption of Twitter relates to prior engagement in other types of online activities. Our findings suggest that online skills as well as prior consumption and production activities especially in the domain of entertainment news are significant predictors of subsequent Twitter use. Our results caution about the potential biases that may result from studies that sample on Twitter users excluding other populations.”
“Participatory Politics: New Media and Youth Political Action”
MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics and the University of Chicago, 2012
Findings: “Youth now consume news through participatory channels. 45 percent of youth reported getting news at least once a week from family and friends via Twitter or Facebook feeds. This rivals the 49 percent who got news at least once in the past week from newspapers or magazines…. Indeed, youth report that Facebook posts and Tweets on Twitter from family and friends are among their most common sources for news, information, and perspectives.”
“Tweeting Is Believing? Understanding Microblog Credibility Problems”
2012 Computer-Supported Cooperative Work conference
Findings: While the perceived credibility of a tweet was linked to its author, it was not associated with the truthfulness of the tweet itself. This held true regardless of the assessor’s experience with Twitter; in fact, more experienced users typically rated tweets as more credible overall. “Those with more experience with a given technology view it as a more credible information source” than those with less experience. Tweets on science topics are rated as more credible than tweets on politics or entertainment topics; tweets with a topical user name relating to the discussed topic (i.e., ScienceNow) are rated as more credible than those with traditional (i.e., John Smith) or Internet (JSmith84) style user names.
“Political Polarization on Twitter”
Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, 2011
Abstract: In this study we investigate how social media shape the networked public sphere and facilitate communication between communities with different political orientations. We examine two networks of political communication on Twitter, comprised of more than 250,000 tweets from the six weeks leading up to the 2010 U.S. congressional midterm elections. Using a combination of network clustering algorithms and manually-annotated data we demonstrate that the network of political retweets exhibits a highly segregated partisan structure, with extremely limited connectivity between left- and right-leaning users. Surprisingly this is not the case for the user-to-user mention network, which is dominated by a single politically heterogeneous cluster of users in which ideologically-opposed individuals interact at a much higher rate compared to the network of retweets. To explain the distinct topologies of the retweet and mention networks we conjecture that politically motivated individuals provoke interaction by injecting partisan content into information streams whose primary audience consists of ideologically-opposed users. We conclude with statistical evidence in support of this hypothesis.
American Political Science Association Annual Meeting Paper, 2012
Abstract: “The 2010 Massachusetts Special Senate Election — a precursor to the current high stakes congressional campaigns — was characterized by millions of dollars in outside funding, an advertising blitz, out-of-state volunteers, Tea Party mobilization, volatile polling, and a broad social media campaign, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Poll results were triumphantly tweeted, blogged, and covered in news reports among homophilous groups. In addition, users attempted to influence trends, real time search and news coverage by enlisting other users to increase volume on Facebook and Twitter for favored candidates. In addition the conservative Patriot Action Network threatened liberal news coverage and liberal journalists with a Twitter spam and the America Future Fund sent a “Twitterbomb” framed as replies to users interested in the Senate race. Given these efforts, Our results show that reporters must be cautious in interpreting Twitter and other manipulable, motivated and opinionated media trends as a guide to public opinion.”
“Pew Research: Twitter and the Campaign”
Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, December 2011
Findings: Discussion on Twitter about presidential candidates during the early Republican Primary was more negative than discourse found in other media: “One distinguishing factor about the campaign discourse on Twitter is that it is more intensely opinionated, and less neutral, than in both blogs and news. Tweets contain a smaller percentage of statements about candidates that are simply factual in nature without reflecting positively or negatively on a candidate.” For former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney during the early campaign, the tone on Twitter was far less positive than negative: “19% positive, 40% negative and 41% neutral. That is distinctly different from and less flattering than the mixed assessments he generated both in blogs (33% positive, 35% negative, 32% neutral) and in the news media (25% positive, 28% negative, 47% neutral).”
“Twitter Use by the U.S. Congress”
Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 2010
Abstract: “We read and analyzed the content of over 6,000 posts from all members of Congress using the site. Our analysis shows that Congresspeople are primarily using Twitter to disperse information, particularly links to news articles about themselves and to their blog posts, and to report on their daily activities. These tend not to provide new insights into government or the legislative process or to improve transparency; rather, they are vehicles for self-promotion. However, Twitter is also facilitating direct communication between Congresspeople and citizens, though this is a less popular activity. We report on our findings and analysis and discuss other uses of Twitter for legislators.”
“Transparency, Participation, Cooperation: A Case Study Evaluating Twitter as a Social Media Interaction Tool in the U.S. Open Government Initiative”
Proceedings of the 13th Annual International Conference on Digital Government Research, 2012
Abstract: “The first official order of business carried out by U.S. President Obama in 2008 was presenting a memorandum entitled the Open Government Initiative. The three pillars of transparency, participation and collaboration form the foundation for the initiative. Our study analyzed the use of social media as one of the means being employed to achieve these goals by conducting a case-study of one government agency, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)…. Early findings suggest that although the USDA is explicitly mentioned in the tweets there is no clear evidence of discourse, in the sense of exchange of tweets between the USDA and other Twitterers. This is assuming that anyone who may post from the USDA would do so overtly via the auspices of the organization and not as an individual with a unique user name. Our research indicates that traditional definitions of these terms may need to be expanded to account for the types of interactions occurring via social media.”
“Inherent Barriers to the Use of Social Media for Public Policy Informatics” (PDF)
The Innovation Journal: The Public Sector Innovation Journal, 2011
Abstract: “Social media has the potential to foster interactions between policy makers, government officials, and their constituencies. Opportunities to receive feedback from residents, inform them of government-provided opportunities, and increase engagement with the governance process have all been proposed as ways social media can play a role in Governance 2.0. However, the ability to realize these potential benefits faces inherent barriers in terms of perceptions of social media, ability of administrators to make effective use of social media tools, and the design of software used to operationalize social media. In this paper, we provide a case study of an attempt to use social media to engage with stakeholders, the AdvanceMichigan project, and discuss the various factors that hindered the success of that project.”
“Twitter Use During an Emergency Event: The Case of the UT Austin Shooting”
Proceedings of the 12th Annual International Digital Government Research Conference: Digital Government Innovation in Challenging Times, 2011
Abstract: “Monitoring social media information for unusual behavior can help identify [traumatic] events once we can characterize their patterns. As an example, we analyzed the campus shooting in the University of Texas, Austin, on September 28, 2010. In order to study the pattern of communication and the information communicated using social media on that day, we collected publicly available data from Twitter. Collected tweets were analyzed and visualized using the Natural Language Toolkit, word clouds, and graphs. They showed how news and posts related to this event swamped the discussions of other issues.”
“Ensuring an Impartial Jury in the Age of Social Media”
Duke Law & Technology Review, 2011
Abstract: “In light of the significant risks to a fair trial that arise when jurors communicate through social media during trial, judges must be vigilant in monitoring for potential outside influences and in deterring misconduct. In this article, we present informal survey data from actual jurors on their use of social networking during trial. We discuss the rise of web-based social networks like Facebook and Twitter, and the concerns that arise when jurors communicate about a case through social media before returning a verdict. After surveying how courts have responded to jurors’ social media use, we describe the results of the informal survey. The results support a growing consensus in the legal profession that courts should frequently, as a matter of course, instruct jurors not to use social media to communicate about trial. Although others have stressed the importance of jury instructions in this area, we hope that the informal survey data will further the dialogue by providing an important perspective — that of actual jurors.”
“‘Hard’ Versus ‘Soft’ News on Microblogging Networks”
Information, Communication & Society, 2012
Abstract: “This article examines the variability of produsage (the hybridization of production and consumption) within popular social media by introducing semantic network analysis of information communication on Twitter. Utilizing user data (n[2,254,806]), the study examines the dynamics of produsage (a) as a function of user activity and (b) whether produsage levels vary based on either ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ news information. The findings extend upon past socio-ethnographic studies of social media produsage and demonstrate that produsage is significantly low for low-activity users (the majority) but increases dramatically with user activity becoming the dominant communication modality for users with 5,000-25,000 status messages. The volume of soft news information is over double that of hard news information, while produsage networks vary only slightly based on the type of content distributed with ‘hard’ news information tending toward production bias and ‘soft’ news information toward consumption bias.”
Tags: Twitter, social media, campaigns and media, research roundup