With millions of individuals, politicians, NGOs, stakeholders, businesses taking to Twitter everyday to express their opinion on political issues, it is easy to view Twitter as a major outlet of political conversation and debate. However, newly published research from the Pew Research Center and the Social Media Research Foundation has found that when it comes to politically divisive issues, Twitter users have little interaction with those holding opposing views. From a public affairs perspective, in questioning the viability of social media in influencing and changing views on politically divisive issues, the study shows that there is still much to learn of how best to deploy Twitter in political communications.
The researchers set out to map Twitter topic networks, utilising innovative data analysis tools to uncover new insights into the social media landscape. The research produced striking visual maps of Twitter conversations which identified the key people, groups and topics being discussed. These maps were used to identify various distinct patterns to Twitter’s conversational structures.
The researchers tracked the “#my2k” hashtag launched by the web-savvy Obama administration in November 2012, during the battle between Democrats and Republicans over how to avoid the year-end “fiscal cliff”. #my2k urged Twitter users to add the hashtag to messages with examples of what $2000 would mean to them. The amount is approximately what an American middle class family of four would have to have paid in taxes in 2013 if Congress could not strike a deal to remove the threat of around $600bn in tax increases and spending cuts.
The researchers found two “large groups that have little interconnection or bridge between them”. The groups could be recognisably distinguished as “liberal” and “conservative” and each group cited different sources of information and used different hashtags around the same topic. Each group replied to or mentioned a distinct set of discussion leaders- people and organisations- which could be found at the centre of the two conversation clusters identified. Unsurprisingly, the researchers called this “a polarized crowd”- one of six network structures they identified as being on Twitter.
While there are of course limitations to the study, the research is further indication of what many have long feared of Twitter- that partisan users do not interact with those on the opposing side of a political debate.