Expert Commentary

Political polarization on Twitter

Study by the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research at Indiana University, Bloomington on Twitter user behavior before the 2010 U.S. midterm elections.

People increasingly get their news from social networks, and social networks are increasingly politically polarized. While both liberals and conservatives use Twitter, its use has not brought them together. Rather, political communities use social networks as a means of self-segregation, as shown by studies of social networks and books such as The Filter Bubble and The Net Delusion.

A 2011 conference paper for the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, “Political Polarization on Twitter,” looks at the way liberals and conservatives interact on Twitter. The researchers, based at the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University-Bloomington, sought to better understand the relationship between the two major methods of Twitter interaction — retweets and mentions — in the weeks leading up to the 2010 midterm elections. They defined a “political communication” as “any tweet containing at least one politically relevant hashtag” and examined these  tweets using an analysis of political hashtags, both liberal and conservative.

The study’s findings include:

  • People tend to retweet users with whom they agree but often mention users with whom they disagree. “Retweets act as a form of endorsement,” write the authors, while “the mention network appeared to form a bridge between users of different ideologies.”
  • People who use both liberal and conservative hashtags tend to be mentioned more often. “Users contributing to a politically balanced combination of content streams on average receive and produce more inter-ideological communication than those who use mostly partisan hashtags.”
  • Cross-ideological communication can occur either by mentioning a user with whom one disagrees, or by using a hashtag typically used by members of the other party, such as #tcot (“Top Conservatives on Twitter”) or #p2 (“Progressives 2.0”). The latter is known as “content injection.”
  • Tweets that mention users or hashtags outside one’s political persuasion can reinforce polarization. “These interactions might actually serve to exacerbate the problem of polarization by reinforcing pre-existing political biases.”

“The fractured nature of political discourse seems to be worsening, and understanding the social and technological dynamics underlying this trend will be essential to attenuating its effect on the public sphere,” conclude the authors. While there is “substantial cross-ideological interaction,” it may actually make matters worse, suggesting that Twitter users might be less politically polarized if they never interacted with people with whom they disagreed.

Tags: Twitter, social media, elections, campaigns and media

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