Expert Commentary

Twitter, politics and the public: Research roundup

Updated June 2013: A review of scholarly studies that examine Twitter use by politicians, policymakers and the public.


New examples of the growing speed and power of Twitter around the globe seemed to be furnished by events nearly every month now.

In June 2012, soccer fans sent a record-breaking 15,358 tweets per second (and 16.5 million tweets overall) during the final Euro 2012 match. A new data analysis of the 2013 protests in Turkey from scholars at New York University found that, in a single day, “at least 2 million tweets mentioning hashtags related to the protest, such as #direngeziparkı (950,000 tweets), #occupygezi (170,000 tweets) or #geziparki (50,000 tweets)” were sent. The data also show a huge concentration of these tweets coming from protestors and locals; this stands in contrast to the early Arab Spring events, when many tweets came from abroad. (See this review article for further Internet-related research on the Arab Spring.)

For several years now, researchers have been analyzing the effects of the microblogging information ecosystem, creating an increasingly large body of knowledge about Twitter. The network structure of tweets around events and issues — whether there is a hierarchy; the number of influential people; the virality of the memes; the connection between offline and online activities — are all becoming crucial dimensions in terms of understanding the power of movements. 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. 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 by actors who have their own motivations and who do not necessarily represent the grassroots of the citizenry.

The following are a representative sample of studies investigating how Twitter use may shape political and civic space and discourse:


“Twitter Reaction to Events Often at Odds with Overall Public Opinion”
Mitchell, Amy; Hitlin, Paul. Pew Research Center, March 2013.

Findings: On issues such as a federal court ruling on California’s ban on same-sex marriage or Mitt Romney’s presidential debate performance, the mix of positive-negative reactions differed substantially from opinion registered in national polls. In both cases, Twitter reactions leaned more liberal and were not representative of public opinion generally; Twitter sentiment is sometimes more pro-Democratic Party or liberal. The salient feature of Twitter during election season was the tone it seemed to foster: The “overall negativity on Twitter over the course of the campaign stood out. For both candidates, negative comments exceeded positive comments by a wide margin throughout the fall campaign season.” The year-long study concludes that the “reaction to political events on Twitter reflects a combination of the unique profile of active Twitter users and the extent to which events engage different communities and draw the comments of active users. While this provides an interesting look into how communities of interest respond to different circumstances, it does not reliably correlate with the overall reaction of adults nationwide.”


“Who Tweets about Politics? – Political Participation of Twitter Users During the 2011 Gubernatorial Elections”
Social Science Computer Review, forthcoming 2013.

Abstract: “We employ an original survey of Twitter users to determine who participates in politics on Twitter. Under the backdrop of the 2011 gubernatorial elections in four states, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia, we observe citizens engaging in the electoral process while using one of the most popular social media tools. After the elections were called, in typical Twitter fashion, we tweeted 1,448 politically minded users and asked them to respond to our online survey about their Twitter usage. Over 20% responded…. This study answers two key questions for scholars interested in political behavior on the Internet. First, who participates in electoral politics on Twitter? Are they the usual suspects or does Twitter bring typically marginalized groups into the process? The results demonstrate that young people and minorities are engaging in gubernatorial politics to a certain extent, but on Twitter highly partisan and politically engaged citizens appear to dominate the social media outlet.”


“Birds of a Feather Tweet Together: Integrating Network and Content Analyses to Examine Cross-Ideology Exposure on Twitter”
Himelboim, Itai; McCreery, Stephen; Smith, Marc. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, January 2013, Vol. 18, No. 2, 40-60. doi: 10.1111/jcc4.12001.

Findings: The data show that “on Twitter, political talk is highly partisan, where users’ clusters are characterized by homogeneous views and are linked to information sources….” These dynamics likely “reinforce in-group and out-group affiliations, as literally, users form separate political groups on Twitter.” The more the tweets in a cluster reflected a political perspective, the more ideologically one-sided its content tended to be. “Politically active voices, particularly younger voters, who use the Internet to express their opinions are moving away from neutral news sites in favor of those that match their own political views.” The authors point out that the ahistorical and ephemeral nature of Twitter requires that a user commit to frequent updates to form a more nuanced understanding of an issue. They also note that individuals may interact with friends online who do not share their political persuasion, but that these encounters do not lead to “meaningful cross-ideological interaction.”


“Twitter Use 2012”
Smith, Aaron; Brenner, Joanna. Pew Internet & American Life Project, May 2012.

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”
Hargittai, Eszter; Litt, Eden. Information, Communication & Society, 2012, Vol. 15, Issue 5, doi: 10.1080/1369118X.2012.666256.

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”
Cohen, Cathy J.; Kahne, Joseph; Bowyer, Benjamin; Middaugh, Ellen. MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics and the University of Chicago, June 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”
Ringel Morris, Meredith; Counts, Scott; Hoff, Aaron;  Roseway, Asta; Schwarz, Julia. Microsoft Research, Proceedings of CSCW 2012, February 2012

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”
Conover, M.D.; Ratkiewicz, J.; Francisco, M.; Gonçalves, B.; Flammini, A.; Menczer, F. 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.”


“‘It’s Trending on Twitter’: An Analysis of the Twitter Manipulations in the Massachusetts 2010 Special Senate Election”
Just, Marion R.; Crigler, Ann N.; Takis Metaxas, Panagiotis; Mustafaraj, Eni. 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”
Golbeck, Jennifer; Grimes, Justin M.; Rogers, Anthony. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, August 2010, Vol. 61, Issue 8, 1612-1621. doi: 10.1002/asi.21344.

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”
Unsworth, Kristene; Townes, Adam. Proceedings of the 13th Annual International Conference on Digital Government Research, 2012. doi: 10.1145/2307729.2307745.

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”

Lampe, Cliff; LaRose, Robert; Steinfield, Charles; DeMaagd, Kurt. The Innovation Journal: The Public Sector Innovation Journal, Vol. 16(1), 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”
Li, Lin Tzy; et al. Proceedings of the 12th Annual International Digital Government Research Conference: Digital Government Innovation in Challenging Times, 2011. doi: 10.1145/2037556.2037613.

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”
St. Eve, Amy J.; Zuckerman, Michael A. Duke Law & Technology Review, March 2012, Vol. 11.

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”
Horan, Tyler J. Information, Communication & Society, 2012. doi: 10.1080/1369118X.2011.649774.

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

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