Most Twitter users don’t follow ‘elite’ political accounts, study finds

DAVIS, Calif. — It’s no secret that millions of Americans wake up each morning and immediately check their Twitter accounts for the latest news and breaking stories. Interesting new research, however, finds that most users don’t actually follow “elite” political accounts representing members of Congress, the president, or news media outlets.

Instead, scientists at the University of California-Davis and New York University report the average Twitter user is far more likely to follow entertainers and celebrities like Tom Hanks or Katy Perry.

“Those users who do follow political accounts on Twitter, however, stick to insular online communities and mostly follow and share information from their political in-group,” says lead study author Magdalena Wojcieszak, professor of communication at UC Davis, in a university release.

Put another way, the smaller percentage of users who do follow “politically elite” Twitter accounts usually display clear political biases and engage with these elites in a very one-sided way, resulting in an “echo chamber” effect. Study authors analyzed data spanning 1.5 million Twitter users over the course of four years to reach these conclusions.

While the proportion of social media users displaying political biases in their online behaviors was smaller than expected, the research team clarifies that these accounts are still very influential. They tend to be more vocal, participatory, and active online, which of course translates to increased visibility and further propagation of the perception that “political polarization has never been this bad.”

“In this project, we focus on national political elites due to their visibility and national-level influence on public opinion and the political process,” Prof. Wojcieszak explains.

Only 1 in 4 follow all the ‘talking heads’

Ultimately, despite the societal prominence of presidents, congressmen, journalists, pundits, and the news media, researchers found that only 40 percent of Twitter users follow one or more political “elites,” while the remaining 60 percent follow no political accounts at all.

“Given that we analyzed over 2,500 American political elite accounts including Donald Trump, Joe Biden, prominent pundits including Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity, and the most popular media outlets such as MSNBC and Fox News, the fact that only 23% of the representative sample of over 1.5 million users follow three of more of such elite accounts is revealing,” Prof. Wojcieszak adds.

The study also notes that users following politicians, pundits, and news media tend to follow their political in-group at a much higher rate than out-group elites (around 90% vs. 10%). Similarly, this same group also shares tweets from in-group elites much, much more frequently than out-group tweets (about a 13:1 ratio). When they do share an out-group tweet, it’s usually to criticize or add a negative comment.

When it comes to conservative Twitter users in comparison to liberal Tweeters, conservative users are roughly twice as likely as liberals to share in-group versus out-group content. The disparity is about the same when it comes to adding negative commentary to out-group shares.

“Overall, the majority of American Twitter users are not sufficiently interested in politics to follow even a single political or media elite from our list,” Prof. Wojcieszak comments.

Is Twitter just a vocal minority of the public?

All in all, study authors were surprised by this finding. It’s generally accepted in popular culture that Twitter is an overtly political social media platform. It’s assumed most Tweeters log on each day to engage in, or at least browse, the latest political discourse.

In conclusion, study authors say that while the proportion of Twitter users spreading political vitriol may be smaller than many realize, they are still a group that can potentially influence greater public perception in a major way. Considering the troubling rise of radicalization in America coupled with decreasing support for democratic norms and rising support for political violence, the influence of social media on this phenomenon can’t be ignored.

“At the same time,” Prof. Wojcieszak concludes, “we have to remember that these political biases are far removed from the everyday online behaviors of most politically disinterested Americans, who simply don’t care and prefer to immerse themselves in entertainment or sports. Our findings should help us all keep in perspective the concerns about the so-called ‘echo chambers’ online.”

The study is published in Science Advances.

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