Posted on August 20, 2018

For Popularity on Twitter, Partisanship Pays

Bethany Brookshire, Science News, August 7, 2018

Twitter users are most exposed to, and engage most with, the viewpoints that are closest to their own, the study shows. Those who do try to bridge the partisan divide suffer the ultimate social media consequence — less popularity.

Computer scientist Kiran Garimella of Aalto University in Finland started out studying algorithms that might show how polarization arises on social media. {snip} So Garimella began to look at where echo chambers of that polarization might exist, and what it meant for the people in them.

Garimella and his colleagues examined more than 100 million publicly available tweets from 2015 to 2016 that were in a series of public datasets. The scientists focused specifically on political hashtags such as #guncontrol, #Obamacare and #abortion and on tweets surrounding the 2016 United States presidential election. They also included a large dataset of 2.6 billion tweets from people who retweeted presidential and vice-presidential candidates from 2009 to 2016.

And the researchers examined tweets by people the users followed to study the content the users were consuming. They also built a model to represent the social connections among the users. Finally, the scientists analyzed the tweets themselves for their political leanings, examining which publications tweets linked to, and rated those publications on a scale from left-leaning to right-leaning.


{snip} But when political tweets and Twitter users were broken down by their political leanings, the tweets neatly gathered into two distinct lumps — one on the political left, and one on the right. Conservatives tweet conservative links, and liberals tweet liberal links.

And that goes for the tweets of people they followed too. “We find that a majority of users produce and consume content from the same ideology,” says Garimella. “This is evidence that people are in these echo chambers because they aren’t being exposed to the other side.”

Not only that, people who tweet more partisan content tend to have more influence, what Garimella calls “central to their networks.” They have more followers of a similar mindset, and their tweets get more retweets. {snip}

There were a relatively small number of users who followed and tweeted about news from both sides of the political spectrum. But “if you’re bipartisan, you’re punished for being bipartisan,” Garimella explains. Those users are “less popular, less influential in their networks and their content gets less engagement.” Ouch. He and his colleagues posted their results January 5 at

Many users of social media would probably like to think they are among the bipartisan few, hearing and sharing content from both sides. But, Garimella shows that is just not true. “People get riled up for partisan content.”


But he notes that readers should “be wary of making grand statements that people are living in bubbles.” Twitter is only one part of a person’s life (hopefully). Family, friends and workplaces might help expose partisan users to other points of view. {snip}

Still, Garimella notes, the promotion of only partisan content isn’t doing anyone any favors. “Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have made it easier for people to be encompassed in their own bubbles,” he says. “It makes it easy to hate the other side.” And if you’re not deliberately seeking news outside a certain sphere, “you’re getting biased information, and you’re not aware you’re not getting information outside of the bubble.”