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For Politicians, Extreme Positions Mean More Twitter Followers

A study focusing on members of the U.S. House of Representatives provides evidence that social media may contribute to political polarization.

By Tom Jacobs


The U.S. House of Representatives chamber in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

How do you attract more followers on Twitter? The quality and quantity of your posts certainly matter, along with strategic retweeting. But if you’re a member of Congress, a different factor will be enormously helpful: holding extreme views.

That’s the depressing conclusion of a recent study, which finds members of the United States House of Representatives who hold “unambiguous or extreme ideological positions” attract greater numbers of Twitter followers than their more moderate peers.

The results suggest the echo-chamber effect of social media “may contribute to heightened levels of extremism,” a research team led by Sounman Hong of South Korea’s Yonsei University writes in the journal Government Information Quarterly.

The study examined the 111th Congress (January 3, 2009, to January 3, 2011), and was limited to the 151 House members (out of 435) who had Twitter accounts when the data was collected. Their ideology, measured on the commonly used DW-Nominate score, was based on their voting records.

If your policy positions lack nuance, it’s easier to express them in 140 characters.

The researchers controlled for a number of factors, including the income and racial make-up of a representative’s district; the politician’s age, education, and religion; and the amount of news coverage the representative received.

“All else equal, politicians with extreme ideological positions tend to have more Twitter followers,” the researchers conclude. “Both left- and right-wing extremists have larger Twitter readership than their moderate peers.”

They add that this held true even after taking into consideration the number of tweets they sent, how long they had been using the service, and how often they had appeared in the traditional mass media.

“The magnitude of these effects would be even greater were we to take into account the fact that politicians with extreme ideological positions were early Twitter adopters,” the researchers write.

These results appear to support the idea that social media is increasing our political polarization — an issue Facebook continues to grapple with, in spite of a study last year that found the service exposes users to opposing viewpoints.

Some social scientists fear social media sites can become “echo chambers” in which people continually get their own views reflected back at them — a dynamic that can lead to positions becoming even more extreme.

While these results fall short of proving that thesis, they point in its disturbing direction. If your policy positions lack nuance, it’s easier to express them in 140 characters, and such messages can confirm and solidify the biases of believers.