Twitter exemplifies, not defies, political polarization, study says

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Americans lament a lack of civil political dialogue between groups people with different beliefs. We see it as … bad … that Americans are becoming more polarized.

Case in point: even our comedy is divisive. In a Tallahassee performance last week, Louis Black said he would be railing in usual fashion against “both” parties. But really, the railing was against members of just one party, with customary profanity. It was a pep rally of divisiveness. Followed by him asking, I paraphrase, “why can’t we all get along?” The irony was not acknowledged.

So what then does Twitter do for bipartisan dialogue? Is it the “town hall” of political discussion that some have pegged it to be?


In a study published last week by the Pew Research Internet Project, people on Twitter explore political issues with the same partisan myopia we see everywhere else.

“If a topic is political, it is common to see two separate, polarized crowds take shape. They form two distinct discussion groups that mostly do not interact with each other,” the report finds. “In polarized discussions, each group links to a different set of influential people or organizations that can be found at the center of each conversation cluster.”

In this, Pew finds, polarized discussions may regard the same topic but ignore one another, point to different web resources, and use different hashtags.

Pew uses a series of data visualizations to portray different types of Twitter dialogue landscapes. These are likened to aerial photographs of a crowd, showing the size and composition of a population, and also of topographic maps, “illustrating points on the landscape that have the highest elevation.”

In contrast with other types of conversations such as those surrounding customer service complaints, support networks, broadcast news conversations, brands or public events, political topics are characterized by substantially greater polarization.

polarized twitter