A recent scientific study examines the phenomenon of political echo chambers on social media. The researchers find that Twitter users are, to a large degree, exposed to political opinions that agree with their own and that bipartisan users pay a price.

Situations where one is exposed only to opinions that agree with their own are an increasing concern for the political discourse in many democratic countries.

In a fresh study of this phenomenon, the researchers compare the political leaning of individual users with the political leaning of their connections on Twitter. To do that, they define two numerical scores: a production score, which reflects the political leaning,  liberal or conservative, of the messages published, or ‘produced’, by a user; and a consumption score, which reflects the political leaning of the messages received, or ‘consumed’, by a social-media user.

“By comparing the two scores for each user, we find that Twitter users are, to a large degree, exposed to political opinions that agree with their own,” says Michael Mathioudakis, Assistant Professor at the Department of Computer Science from the University of Helsinki, and one of the authors of the study.

The price of bipartisanship and the role of gatekeepers

The researchers also find that users who post messages with diverse leaning pay a 'price of bipartisanship' in terms of their network centrality and content appreciation.

“That is, the number of times their messages, tweets, are shared or rated positively, ‘favorited’, by other users is smaller than that of partisan users,” says Mathioudakis.

Even as the researchers found political discussions on Twitter that resemble echo chambers, they also identified ‘gatekeepers’ - a class of users who consume content with diverse leaning but produce partisan content with a single-sided leaning.

“Such users might play an important role in enabling the flow of information between the two sides, but this is something that we’ll look more into in future research”, he says.

Large scale study spanned 5 years of Twitter data

The researchers from University of Helsinki and Aalto University performed their analysis on small and larger sets of tweets. The smaller sets included tweets that spanned one week and were focused on a specific discussion, for example about Obamacare during June 22-29 in 2015.

The largest set consisted of 2.6 billion tweets generated by users who were active in discussions around US politics, from 2009 to 2016. The large dataset was obtained from previous work by Dr Kiran Garimella from Aalto University, a co-author here.

The joint work “Political Discourse on Social Media: Echo Chambers, Gatekeepers, and the Price of Bipartisanship” appears at the upcoming Web Conference (WWW2018) in Lyon, France 23.-27.2018, and a pre-print can be found here: https://arxiv.org/abs/1801.01665.

See the press release by Aalto University here.

For more:
Michael Mathioudakis, 029 415 1616, https://twitter.com/mmathioudakis, michael.mathioudakis@helsinki.fi
Science Communicator Minna Meriläinen-Tenhu, @MinnaMeriTenhu, +358 50 415 0316, minna.merilainen@helsinki.fi