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Twitter: political polarisation increased 10-20% in last eight years

Thu 9 Mar 2017

Researchers from Finland and Qatar have conducted a survey of eight years’ worth of social media output on Twitter, with the findings suggesting an increase in retrenched or polarised conversations and polemics over the last eight years.

The paper studies tweets from 679,000 consistently active users who discuss U.S. politics and adopts three criteria to ensure balance: whether the users have become less likely to follow both sides of political arguments; whether they have become less likely to re-tweet both sides; and whether they’ve become less likely to use hashtags common to both sides.

According to all three criteria the researchers established a 10-20% rise in polarisation between 2009 and 2016. Though tweets were available in the two years prior to 2009, the lower volume in that period threatened to offset consistency, and so those two years were discounted.

The first user-set was seeded initially from the Twitter accounts of presidential and vice-presidential candidates, and then extended to include their followers, taking care to include only accounts which remain active over the period. The second user-set was obtained from research undertaken by the Pew Research Center – material centring on polarisation in the media.

Much of the increasing polarisation that needed to be assessed involved the subjective semantics of different hashtags dealing with the same topic – such as #globalwarming and #climategate.

Due to the relatively recently phenomenon of social media, studies taking in such a time-frame are rare, compared to analyses of analogue material, such as a 2015 study of polarisation in the U.S. House of Representatives over several decades.

What the latest study cannot answer is whether ‘online echo chambers’ such as Twitter are reflecting offline polarisation or engendering it – although it might be reasonable to assume that the universal politics of flame wars – which seem proofed against economic turbulence and more closely indexed to how humans behave online in comparison to the real world – suggest that social media network output is not mere litmus paper for offline thought.

The researchers conclude that the trend seems only likely to continue:

‘Given the running up to the 2016 US presidential elections and concerns of a President Trump – famous for his Twitter politics – doing little to attempt to reduce polarization, we speculate that the online polarization will continue to increase in the foreseeable future.’


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