Is Twitter Politically Polarized?

Yes, according to a new paper by M. D. Conover, J. Ratkiewicz, M. Francisco, B. Goncalves, A. Flammini, and F. Menczer (computer scientists are apparently big on the idea of not letting the world know what their first names are). But there still is some interesting interaction between Twitter users from different political perspectives.

The authors use an algorithm to identify 250,000 Twitter messages (from a database of 355 million tweets gathered over a six week period) with politically relevant hashtags, coming from about 45,000 users. What’s interesting is that they identify quite different dynamics as operating within two different communication networks. One network is composed of retweets – where one user simply retweets another’s message. Here, they find that this network is densely clustered, so that left-leaning people retweet messages from other leftwingers, and right-leaning people retweet messages from other rightwingers. However, there is a second network, composed of ‘mentions’ – where one Twitter user mentions another’s user name in order to communicate with him or her. This network is far more heterogenous, as can be seen from the figure below (the retweet network is linkmapped on the left, the mention network on the right). This can be interpreted with a positive or negative normative slant, depending.

Linkmaps of Twitter and Political Polarization

mentions and replies may serve as a conduit through which users are exposed to information and opinions they might not choose in advance. Despite this promising finding, the work of Yardi and boyd (2010) suggests that cross-ideological interactions may reinforce pre-existing in-group/out-group identities, exacerbating the problem of political polarization.

The authors lean towards the latter interpretation. They also generously provide their dataset (located at ) for others interested in exploring the “role of technologically-mediated political inter- action in deliberative democracy.”

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.