‘Polarization happens fast’: Study shows how Republican, Democrat tweets differ after mass shootings

  • Twitter study reveals tweets become most argumentative three to four days after a mass shooting occurs. 
  • Republicans tend to focus more on the shooter in their posts, while Democrats typically focus on the victims.

STANFORD, Calif. — The problem of mass shootings in the United States feels like it’s hit a fever pitch in 2019. Each and every one is an almost incomprehensible tragedy, and in the hours and days following mass shootings many people post their thoughts, opinions, and frustrations on social media. Unfortunately, the underlying causes behinds these shootings, as well as possible solutions, are extremely polarizing topics due to the large amount of political baggage they carry. Consequently, the majority of posts or discussions across social media often end up devolving into arguments.

With this in mind, a team of researchers at Stanford University recently set out to analyze the linguistic differences between how Republicans and Democrats communicate and express themselves on Twitter following mass shootings. Among other findings, they found that Republicans typically post or comment on breaking news reports or specific details regarding the shootings, while Democrats tend to post more about potential policy changes. Republicans also post more about the shooter, while Democrats typically focus more on the victims.

Researchers say their hope in conducting this study was to shed some light on why both sides of the political spectrum so quickly become entrenched in their beliefs, and possibly help determine how to unite Americans across political parties in the future. They chose to specifically focus on reactions to mass shootings because “they are events with objective facts, the meanings of which people twist in different ways,” lead author Dora Demszky explains.

“We live in a very polarized time,” comments study co-author Dan Jurafsky in a press release. “Understanding what different groups of people say and why is the first step in determining how we can help bring people together. This research can also help us figure out how polarization spreads and how it changes over time.”

Other findings from the study included that Republicans were more likely to tweet sentiments of fear or disgust, and Democrats were more likely to write about sadness or a call to action.

Moving on to exact verbiage, Republicans were found to be 25% more likely than Democrats to use the word “terrorist” if the shooter was African American, Middle Eastern, or Hispanic. Conversely, Democrats were 25% more likely to use “terrorist” in regards to a Caucasian shooter. Democrats were also more likely to use words such as “must,” “should,” “have to,” and “need to.”

Researchers also found that Democrats were 2.7 times more likely than Republicans to reference previous mass shootings to help contextualize new shootings. Democrats most often referenced the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. On the other hand, Republicans were 2.5 times more likely to mention “mass violence events” from the past in which the perpetrator was a person of color; most of the time this meant the 9/11 attacks.

In order to conduct the research, 4.4 million tweets were analyzed that had been posted in response to 21 different mass shooting events that occurred between 2015 and 2018. Retweets were not included, and Twitter users were identified as either Republican or Democrat based solely on the number of liberal or conservative Twitter accounts each followed.

A special method of analysis intended to determine the “degree of polarization in speech” was used to process the data. To that end, researchers say that tweets appeared to become more polarized over time during the hours and days following the shootings. Most tweets appeared to be at their most argumentative at around three to four days after a shooting.

“Ideological polarization happens very fast,” Demszky says. “As soon as an event like a mass shooting happens, people react very differently right away. This research gives a large-scale insight into how polarization works linguistically.”

Demszky and her team say that additional research is needed to fully understand the linguistic differences between liberals and conservatives, and admit that this study was a bit hindered by its classifications of users as strictly Republicans or Democrats as opposed to using a more flexible political spectrum.

“It’s easy to not reflect on the words you use daily,” Demszky notes. “But I think it’s a good step forward if people are just aware of their own biases.”

The study is available here.

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About the Author

John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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