Political Polarization on Twitter: Social media May Contribute to Online Extremism

Related Research Article

Hong, S., & Kim, S. H. (2016). Political polarization on twitter: Implications for the use of social media in digital governments. Government Information Quarterly, 33(4), 777-782.

Political use of Social Media and Political Polarization

Social media is attracting considerable attention for its potential to increase polarization of political views. Online media platforms foster the creation of networks among people with similar beliefs. We were interested in social media’s role in partisan politics and sought evidence using all members of the 111th U.S. House of Representatives in our study sample.

Because House members are elected every two years, they engage with their electorate actively, particularly through social media. At the time of data collection (May 30, 2010), most politicians in the sample had Twitter accounts. Their presence on Facebook and blogs was not as prevalent.

“Twitter has emerged as a key platform on which anyone with a smartphone can engage in political discourse,” observed Michelle Nguyen in her article entitled “Twitter’s Role in Politics” in The Northwestern Business Review (https://northwesternbusinessreview.org/twitters-role-in-politics-b3ed620465c9). She noted that a TV ad “can cost millions of dollars” but “a single post can reach the same number of people just as quickly for a tiny fraction of the cost.”

In our study, we collected the following data regarding politicians’ Twitter activities: when a politician joined Twitter, his/her number of tweets, and the number of followers on his/her Twitter account. We were particularly interested in the association between the political ideologies of members of the 111th House of Representatives and their social media activities. We measured politicians’ association with citizens by the size of their online readership.

Evidence from our empirical investigation indicated that politicians with extreme ideologies generally attracted a larger public audience than their moderate peers. We refer to the “echo chamber” effect of social media: messages reflecting extreme views may be more likely to be noticed and circulated by the public. Daily, citizens share information published via government Twitter accounts, and the content may be fragmented or customized. Furthermore, the trend for information to be shared in this way may not be easily reversed.

Results of our study suggest that political polarization may be problematic in social media and can impact governmental practices related to the digital age. In a “60 Minutes” interview with correspondent Lesley Stahl following his election to the presidency in 2016, President Trump stated that he uses social media as “a method of fighting back” when he believes a news story is inaccurate. Reena Flores, in the related CBS News article dated November 12, 2016, reported that President Trump had over 14 million Twitter followers at the time (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/donald-trump-60-minutes-interview-weighs-twitter-use-as-president/). His continued use of Twitter generates enthusiasm among his followers and frequently provokes angry tweets from those with opposing ideological or political views.

In our article, “Political polarization on twitter: Implications for the use of social media in digital governments” (reference below), we stated our concern that “the increasingly polarized public opinion expressed via social media may influence the process and integrity of government decision-making.” We considered the possibility that online platforms used to collect and analyze the opinions of citizens could be biased toward extremist opinions and that governmental policymakers relying on data from these platforms may be giving more weight to extreme ideologies because their proponents appear to have greater popularity on social media.

Though this study was focused on Twitter activities of members of the 111th U.S. House of Representatives, we suggest that our findings have broader implications about the use of social media by political and administrative institutions. Results of our study are cautionary for governments and policymakers who use social media to collect and interpret the voices of citizens because the preferences of citizens expressed through social media may be directed more toward contentious political issues rather than toward solving challenging problems.

The capacity of social media to personalize information appears to be contributing to greater levels of extremism, and online political polarization is increasing. Therefore, institutions and governmental entities must develop a process for gathering a wider range of opinions (and greater online participation) from the public and simultaneously discern which voices represent extremist views.