To understand how liberals and conservatives prioritize different values, we perform two studies: one examining tweets from U.S. residents and one examining U.S. Congress members. In both cases, we find that liberals and conservatives use language similarly when talking about harm, but very different when talking about group loyalty and authority.
Sterling, Joanna, and John T. Jost. “Moral Discourse in the Twitterverse.” Journal of Language and Politics 17, no. 2 (2018): 195–221. https://doi.org/10.1075/jlp.17034.ste
Nov 24, 2017
Area of Study
We analyzed Twitter language to explore hypotheses derived from moral foundations theory, which suggests that liberals and conservatives prioritize different values. In Study 1, we captured 11 million tweets from nearly 25,000 U.S. residents and observed that liberals expressed fairness concerns more often than conservatives, whereas conservatives were more likely to express concerns about group loyalty, authority, and purity. Increasing political sophistication exacerbated ideological differences in authority and group loyalty. At low levels of sophistication, liberals used more harm language, but at high levels of sophistication conservatives referenced harm more often. In Study 2, we analyzed 59,000 tweets from 388 members of the U.S. Congress. Liberal legislators used more fairness- and harm-related words, whereas conservative legislators used more authority-related words. Unexpectedly, liberal legislators used more language pertaining to group loyalty and purity. Follow-up analyses suggest that liberals and conservatives in Congress use similar words to emphasize different policy priorities.
It is a unique feature of the present moment that lively discussions of moral issues often play out online on social media platforms. But little work has been done to answer the question: How do liberals and conservatives prioritize different values?
To answer this question, we analyzed 11 million tweets from nearly 25,000 U.S. residents. We find that liberals express fairness concerns more often than conservatives, whereas conservatives are more likely to express concerns about group loyalty, authority, and purity. This is consistent with past research based on self-reported differences between liberals and conservatives on value prioritization.
We then extend this work to study how citizens use language differently than members of Congress by analyzing an additional 59,000 tweets from 388 U.S. Congress members’ official accounts. From this, we observe a number of significant differences in the language used by liberal and conservative elites as well as ordinary citizens.
First, after adjusting for political sophistication (or one’s knowledge of political activity and ability or tendency to form political views) there was no ideological difference with respect to the use of language related to harm avoidance. With respect to language concerning authority and group loyalty, we found that political sophistication did indeed exacerbate ideological differences. Thus, sophisticated conservatives were especially likely to use words related to authority and group loyalty. Follow-up analyses suggest that liberals and conservatives in Congress use similar words to emphasize different policy priorities.