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Digital Democracy, Internet, News Media, Polarization, Social Media

Birds of a feather tweet together: Examining cross-ideology exposure on Twitter

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Once dismissed as a passing tech fad, Twitter has become an important platform globally, influencing debates and shaping political upheaval, and providing a critical information and broadcast network for journalists and communicators of all kinds. With this rise in profile, Twitter has also become a key area of focus for social scientists trying to assess the impact of digital media on political discourse and belief formation. Past studies have analyzed ideological dynamics and the granular mechanisms of the network to determine whether Twitter fosters further polarization, or increased “cyberbalkanization.” New research continues to be published that can help media members become more effective communicators and better interpreters of the structure of dialogue on Twitter — and see it as constructed space, with inherent biases. The research suggests it’s worth maintaining a skeptical view of apparent trends and information quality, even as new data-driven fields such as “sentiment analysis” strive to make this area more scientific.

A 2013 study from the University of Georgia and the Connected Action Consulting Group published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, “Birds of a Feather Tweet Together: Integrating Network and Content Analyses to Examine Cross-Ideology Exposure on Twitter,” explores the extent to which political interactions on Twitter cross ideological lines. The researchers collected data on the keywords “Tea Party,” “Obama,” “DNC,” “GOP,” “unemployment benefits,” “global warming,” “deficit,” “immigration reform,” “healthcare reform,” and “stimulus money” on August 17, 2010, in the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections. An analysis captured the tweeter’s extended network and the political contexts of the tweets. More than 2,100 Twitter messages were analyzed and sorted into 30 distinct clusters of affiliation.

Key study findings include:

  • 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.”
  • Some keywords had separate clusters of users across the political spectrum. “Messages associated with global warming, deficit, unemployment benefits, Tea Party, Obama, GOP, and DNC, were mainly conservative or mainly liberal.” Only one cluster of the 30 examined had very similar percentages of conservative (18.9%) and liberal (18.1%) sentiments.
  • Content and links relating to the keywords “immigration reform,” “stimulus money” and “healthcare reform” typically did not support a specific political orientation. “The exposure to ideological diverse opinions via these [link] sources was limited, as they appeared to be neutral.”
  • A high percentage of liberal (82%) and conservative (75%) Twitter messages linked to sites with similar ideological content. “Conservative messages… were slightly more likely than liberal ones to link to sources with articles without clear political orientation.”
  • Conservatives (60%) were more likely to link to conservative grassroots sites than liberals (50%); liberal media sites were more popular destinations for liberal Twitter links (23%) than for conservatives (9%).

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.”

For a broader sense of this area of scholarship, see this 2012 research roundup, “Questioning the Network: The Year in Social Media Research,” published at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Tags: twitter, social media, technology, communication

    Writer: | Last updated: January 31, 2013

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

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the issue-related Huffington Post article titled "Can We Disagree Without Being Disagreeable?"

    1. What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?

    Read the full study titled “Birds of a Feather Tweet Together: Integrating Network and Content Analyses to Examine Cross-Ideology Exposure on Twitter.”

    1. What are the study's key technical terms? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?