On certain days, Twitter can feel like the world’s biggest, fastest echo chamber. Since we tend to follow people who are similar to us, we often see our own views reflected back at us — meaning that a gloomy cloud of irritation can rapidly swirl into a cyclone of outrage as we hear from other people who feel the same way that we do.
But while this may be the case in some instances, a group of computer scientists have discovered that the opposite may also be true… and that perhaps Twitter can be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
In a study to be presented at a conference in July, a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge and Korea’s KAIST show how Twitter can provide users greater access to different political viewpoints and media sources than they might otherwise get.
The paper, called The Media Landscape in Twitter, explains how the team made some surprising discoveries when they looked into the site’s usage patterns. First they looked at who follows who, and discovered that Twitter is a highly politicized space. Then they examined patterns of tweeting and retweeting to try to understand how people receive information on Twitter, and what it is they might see. And that’s where they reached their conclusion — that although Twitter is a pretty partisan space, it can also offer unprecedented opportunities to break down the barriers that plague our local, national and international politics.
How? Through retweets and interaction — what they call “indirect media exposure”.
“Indirect media exposure expands the political diversity of news to which users are exposed to a surprising extent, increasing the range by between 60 and 98 per cent. These results are valuable because they have not been readily available to traditional media, and they can help predict how we will read news, and how publishers will interact with us in the future.”
It’s not a long paper, and if you’re interested in the way Twitter works I’d definitely suggest reading it. But let’s boil it down to a few key pieces of data — and look at the lessons it can teach us.
Most of Twitter’s users are political. Just over half (50.8 per cent) of all Twitter users studied showed a distinct political bias in the media outlets and individuals they followed. And most of those lean to the left of the political spectrum, accounting for 62 per cent of users who demonstrated some bias. Thirty seven per cent were doggedly centrist, but just 1 per cent of Twitter users who showed a political preference were right-wing.
A couple of caveats about reading too much into that sharp divide: given that Twitter’s user base is younger and more metropolitan than the societal norm, it is perhaps unsurprising that it is weighted left. But it’s also worth noting that this study was originally undertaken more than a year ago, and since then Twitter has grown dramatically while global politics have largely skewed back towards the right. Twitter’s user base today may reflect a slightly more balanced political picture. But either way, there’s a big split.
Twitter’s secondary and tertiary benefits are strong. Most organizations think about Twitter in simple terms — more followers means more exposure. But the study shows that it’s not just about who you follow, it’s about who your followers follow — essentially who the people in your extended network are. The network offers a number of routes for information from new sources to get to you. According to the study, some 80 per cent of users choose to follow at least 10 media sources, but they are exposed to between six and 10 times as many media sources through their friends.
People are more important than brands. Many of the biggest Twitter accounts are big media brands such as CNN and Time, but the study suggests that Twitter’s active users actually tend to prefer individuals over outlets. So while the average follower of @NYTimes has six followers themselves, individual journalists have followers who boast a median following count of around 100. That gives individual journalists — who are also, the study says, more likely to link to a multiplicity of sources — a much wider and more influential network of connections.
The inference that the personal touch of a journalist is more important than the loftier, impersonal tone of most publications that largely act as promotion channels for their own content. It’s a discovery that reminded me of Twitter’s recent blog post on the science of the hashtag, which found that hashtags explode in usage when they are picked up by individuals with the most dedicated — not necessarily the largest — following.
All this means active Twitter users are exposed to a wider range of views than normal. The researchers say that indirect exposure expands political diversity by a “significant amount”, despite the fact that other studies of social networks have shown a tendency to do the opposite. “Other studies have found a stronger tendency of homophily; blogs of different political views rarely linked to each other,” they point out. “One possible reason is that a Twitter network encompasses several different relationships, from shared interest, to familial ties, friends and acquaintances, so that political similarity doesn’t necessarily exist in all such ties”.
Now, that’s not to say that Twitter should be getting its Nobel Prize winners’ speech ready. Far from it: the influence of that diversity in unknown, and it could be that many people who see messages they disagree with simply change their behavior to screen out such material in future. But it shows that there is a potential there for doing something positive. And while it’s clear there’s a lot more work to do in all this — the researchers say they want to investigate a number of different areas they’ve uncovered— these are an important series of insights at a time when politics seems more fractious and divided than ever.
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