You are weird.
It’s okay — I’m weird too. But if you’re reading a Nieman Lab story, chances are very good that your news consumption habits look pretty different from the median American’s. You might juggle 15 different morning headlines newsletters in your inbox, but most people don’t. You might notice bylines and pay for multiple digital news subscriptions, but most people don’t. You might think of Twitter as a rolling political wire service where the news of the day is revealed and debated — but most people don’t.
It’s always useful for journalists to remember our fundamentally unusual relationship with information — but perhaps nowhere more than Twitter, where our most infovoracious tendencies tend to flourish. That’s why this new article in the journal Science Advances is particularly telling. It’s by Magdalena Wojcieszak (UC Davis), Andreu Casas (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam), Xudong Yu (University of Amsterdam), Jonathan Nagler (NYU), and Joshua A. Tucker (NYU), and the title is “Most users do not follow political elites on Twitter; those who do show overwhelming preferences for ideological congruity” (all emphases mine):
We offer comprehensive evidence of preferences for ideological congruity when people engage with politicians, pundits, and news organizations on social media.
Using 4 years of data (2016–2019) from a random sample of 1.5 million Twitter users, we examine three behaviors studied separately to date: (i) following of in-group versus out-group elites, (ii) sharing in-group versus out-group information (retweeting), and (iii) commenting on the shared information (quote tweeting).
We find that the majority of users (60%) do not follow any political elites. Those who do follow in-group elite accounts at much higher rates than out-group accounts (90 versus 10%), share information from in-group elites 13 times more frequently than from out-group elites, and often add negative comments to the shared out-group information.
Conservatives are twice as likely as liberals to share in-group versus out-group content. These patterns are robust, emerge across issues and political elites, and exist regardless of users’ ideological extremity.
In other words: Most people don’t follow a bunch of political “elites” on Twitter — a group that, for these authors’ purposes, also includes news organizations. But those who do typically follow many more people they agree with politically than people who they don’t. Conservatives follow many more conservatives; liberals follow many more liberals. When it comes to retweeting, people are even more likely to share their political allies than their enemies. And when people do retweet their enemies, they’re often dunking on how dumb/terrible/wrong/evil those other guys are. And conservatives do this more than liberals, overall.
But remember: Most people follow zero of these politics-focused accounts and most of those who follow any follow only a few. You’re weird.
Let’s focus on those non-followers first. This chart shows, of the 1,437,774 Twitter users they tracked, how many of the 2,600-plus “political elite” accounts they follow. The answer is: not many.
So only about 1 in 4 followed even three of these politics-heavy accounts. Only 2.5% followed 50 — a number I’d wager a lot of American journalists could claim.
To my mind, this data point is as much about interest in news broadly as interest in politics. Of those 2,600-plus “elites,” the vast majority are journalists, pundits, or news organizations. (You can see them all here.) They include just about every national news organization you can think of — The New York Times and Washington Post; ABC, NBC, and CBS Newses; CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC; Time, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, Axios, Vice, Forbes, The Daily Beast, ProPublica, Vanity Fair, Wired, Reuters, Politico, Bloomberg…plus all the big left- and right-leaning sites (The Nation, National Review, Breitbart, Mother Jones, The Daily Wire, etc.). If you’re not following at least one of those accounts, your Twitter use is likely bereft of news, not just political news.
[Sidenote: I confess that when I first read this paper, I was a little thrown to see “political elites” defined as “politicians, pundits, or news media.” And indeed, of the 2,000+ “elite” accounts they evaluate, they are overwhelmingly journalists’ accounts — 489 politicians, 119 news organizations, and 2,106 journalists. Some of those are pundits or columnists who write with a clear ideological point of view, but many (most?) are just beat reporters and staff writers. (The authors refer to this entire group as both “journalists” and “pundits” throughout the paper, to which I give a thumbs-down.) They would seem to muddle the in-group/out-group definitions here; the signal that can be derived from retweeting Gina Kolata or Bob Schieffer is weaker than from retweeting Rich Lowery or Jamil Smith. The same is true for news organizations: Retweeting Daily Kos, Breitbart, or The Blaze means more, ideologically speaking, than retweeting C-SPAN, U.S. News, or Reuters.]
So who do all these people follow, if it’s not politicians, pundits, and news outlets? Celebrities:
In sum, given by how many follow celebrities, this analysis shows that the ordinary Twitter users in our sample do use the platform to engage with others beyond their family and friends; but only a small proportion decide to engage with politically-relevant accounts.
On average, the full set of users that we study follow about 10.7 celebrities but only 3.35 of the journalists, 1.52 of the politicians, and 1.13 of the media accounts on our list.
Okay, let’s turn to the more politics/news-engaged segment of Twitter users — those who do follow some of these “elites.”
Wojcieszak et al. used an established methodology to estimate the ideological placement of every account they examined — both the elites and the normies — and divided them into liberals, moderates, and conservatives. (They mostly ignore the moderates.) The results turn out roughly as you’d expect.
(Though not all of them! By their analysis, NPR is quite conservative — farther right, in fact, than The Blaze, The Federalist, and The Washington Examiner. PolitiFact is more conservative than The Daily Caller!)
When it comes to following patterns, there’s virtually no difference between the left and right. Partisans on both sides follow their ideological allies roughly 8× as often as they follow their opponents. But when it comes to retweeting, the distinctions grow. Liberals retweet their own side roughly 10× as the other — but conservatives do it nearly 22× as often.
Of course, anyone who’s spent time on Twitter knows a quote tweet is not always an homage to the quoted tweet’s brilliance. It’s often a convenient way to dunk on it — to point out whatever you see as its terrible wrongness. Both liberals and conservatives are more likely to quote tweet their opponents negatively than positively, by a roughly 2-to-1 ratio.
Interestingly, while liberals and conservatives dunk-tweet at similar levels, that’s true for exactly one reason: Donald Trump. (This data is from 2016-2019, so @realDonaldTrump was still active throughout this period.) Liberals loooved dunk-tweeting on Trump — so much that those tweets made up 20% of all quote tweets in the study. Other than Trump, conservatives were substantially more likely to quote-tweet negatively about opposition journalists, politicians, and news outlets than liberals were.
The paper offers three main takeaways:
First, most Twitter users do not follow or engage with any political elites online. This demonstrates a dichotomy between elite use of Twitter — politicians, pundits, and media (and also academics) — and mass use of Twitter. The elite discussion on the platform is important, but it is not necessarily observed directly by the masses.
Given that Twitter users are more politically engaged than the general population to begin with, this finding of very low political elite following is unexpected. In our case, 59.6% of a random sample of users (856,853 of 1,437,774) were insufficiently politically interested to follow the accounts of the president, key senators, or major news media organizations.
This bleak finding adds to some other evidence that many Twitter users do not follow news media or members of Congress. It also aligns with the aforementioned work showing low absolute levels of news consumption online and on social media more specifically, which users use primarily for entertainment.
Second, those who engage with political elites do so in an overwhelmingly one-sided way, displaying clear political biases in their behaviors. Users disproportionately follow and disseminate messages by like-minded politicians, pundits, and news media, rarely following and yet more rarely sharing cross-cutting elites. We counter the hope that these biases are confined to a small group of extreme users: Our patterns are robust (albeit naturally less pronounced) when examining all the users in our sample, including those ideologically moderate, and are not driven by a few extreme users.
In addition, users not only are more likely to add a commentary to the out-group content they (rarely) share (i.e., quote tweets) but also add negative commentary to these shares. The negative sentiment of the commentary added to out-group retweets works to reinforce the ideological bubble. In summary, across the approximately 20 million shares of elite content that we analyzed, only 5% were of out-group elites without any negative commentary.
The third key finding regards ideological asymmetries, a key area for this research. Both conservative and liberal users are much more likely to follow in-group versus out-group elites, and both groups do so at similar rates. Also, although both groups are dis- proportionately more likely to retweet in-group than out-group elites, conservatives engage in cross-ideological diffusion substantially less. Also, apart from tweets from Donald Trump, conservatives tend to annotate out-group tweets with negative commentary more often than liberals do.
Another way of framing it: Most people on Twitter don’t live in a political echo chamber. But that’s because most people don’t care about politics enough to build one. Those who do care enough find them rather comfy.
Image via Midjourney.