While it’s no secret that social media shapes our political discourse, a new by the Pew Research Center reveals to what extent. Nearly one in three tweets posted by American adults are political in nature, according to Pew’s analysis of a sample of a year’s worth of English-language tweets from US adults. But only eight percent of the original tweets Pew analyzed were political in nature, while more than 40 percent of retweets and quote tweets were classified as political. This shows that users are a lot more likely to share political content from a small group rather than create their own.
It’s important to note that the study analyzed tweets that were posted between May 2020 and May 2021 — a particularly tumultuous time period that included a US presidential election, a summer of political protests, a pandemic and the January 6 insurrection. It’s a significant uptick from 2019, when only 13 percent of US tweets were about politics. But Pew also significantly changed its methodology from 2019, which only focused on politics at the national level.
“This definition excluded mentions of state or local politics and politicians, as well as discussions of policy issues and current events that carry a political valence but do not explicitly reference national political figures or groups,” wrote Pew’s researchers in a blog post.
Still, the findings include some interesting insights on who shapes political debate on Twitter and how. First off, the study found that Americans who were 50 years and older produced 78 percent of all political tweets. While this age group only makes up a quarter of Twitter’s US user base, it virtually dominates the political discussion on the platform. Meanwhile, only seven percent of tweets from US Twitter users between the ages of 18 and 49 were political in nature.
As mentioned earlier, a large chunk of retweets and quote tweets are political in nature — suggesting that most users spread political information on Twitter rather than post original commentary. Roughly 44 percent of retweets and 42 percent were quote tweets were political in nature, as opposed to eight percent of original tweets. Many users voice their political opinions in the replies — an estimated 26 percent of reply tweets discussed politics.
Republicans and Democrats also appear to perceive Twitter very differently from each other. For example, Democrats seem more likely to treat Twitter as a place to encounter like-minded people. Roughly 40 percent of Democrats said they mostly followed Twitter accounts with similar political beliefs to their own, as opposed to 20 percent of Republicans. This is likely helped by the fact that Twitter’s most prolific users swing left. A 2020 Pew study that of Twitter’s most active users, roughly 69 percent identified as Democrats.