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Most Users Do Not Follow Political Elites on Twitter; Those Who Do, Show Overwhelming Preferences for Ideological Congruity.
Few users follow politicians, pundits, and news media on Twitter. Those who do, strongly prefer ideological congruity.
Wojcieszak, Magdalena, Andreu Casas, Xudong Yu, Jonathan Nagler, and Joshua A. Tucker. "Most Users Do Not Follow Political Elites on Twitter; Those Who Do, Show Overwhelming Preferences for Ideological Congruity." Science Advances 8, no. 39 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abn9418
Sep 30, 2022
- Magdalena Wojcieszak,
- Andreu Casas,
- Xudong Yu,
- Jonathan Nagler,
- Joshua A. Tucker
Area of Study
We offer comprehensive evidence of preferences for ideological congruity when people engage with politicians, pundits, and news organizations on social media. Using four years of data (2016-2019) from a random sample of 1.5 million Twitter users, we examine three behaviors studied separately to date: (a) following of in-group vs. out-group elites, (b) sharing in-group vs. out-group information (retweeting), and (c) commenting on the shared information (quote tweeting). We find the majority of users (60%) do not follow any political elites. Those who do, follow in-group elite accounts at much higher rates than out-group accounts (90% vs. 10%), share information from in-group elites 13 times more frequently than from out-group elites, and often add negative comments to the shared out-group information. Conservatives are twice as likely as liberals to share in-group vs. out-group content. These patterns are robust, emerge across issues and political elites, and regardless of users' ideological extremity.
Social media facilitates exposure to different perspectives and connections with diverse people, but it may also lead to insular online communities, where users only find information consistent with their views. It is feared that such “echo chambers” fuel extremity, exacerbate interparty hostility, and ultimately thwart consensual governance. Given their democratic consequences, burgeoning research aims to describe such political congruity in users’ behaviors on social media. Existing evidence regarding the prevalence of these political biases, however, is inconclusive.
To study this topic, we used four years of data (2016-2019) from 1.5 million Twitter users to examine whether they follow and engage with content from political elites in ways that reinforce political biases. We use these data to address five progressively specific questions: (i) What is the proportion of users who follow political elites? Among those who do: (ii) What proportion follows in-group versus out-group elites? (iii) What is the proportion of in-group versus out-group elite information shared by users? (iv) What is the sentiment—positive, neutral, or negative—of the commentary added to the tweets they share from in-group versus out-group elites? (v) Are there ideological asymmetries in these online behaviors?
The analysis yields three clear pictures:
There’s a political vacuum on Twitter. The majority of American users (59.6 percent) do not follow any politicians, pundits, or news media, and only 23 percent follow more than three political elites.
Those who do engage with political elites do so in an overwhelmingly one-sided way. In-group elites are followed at much higher rates than out-group accounts (around 90 percent versus 10 percent), and tweets from in-group elites are shared overwhelmingly more frequently than out-group tweets (at about a 13:1 ratio). Moreover, when sharing out-group tweets, users often use comments, many of them negative, to promote the in-group perspective.
There are important ideological asymmetries: Conservative users are roughly twice as likely as liberals to share in-group versus out-group content, as well as to add negative commentary to out-group shares.
These patterns are robust, emerge across issues and political elites, and regardless of users' ideological extremity.