Political polarization: Does social media make it worse?

Social media provides numerous outlets for people to voice their opinions. Researchers from the W. P. Carey School of Business wondered whether the virtual cacophony is contributing to political polarization. In this study they found that posting activity on Twitter was not correlated with political polarization, but members of Congress who followed more extreme views did appear more polarized in their own opinions and votes.

Plenty of people have called the current batch of congressional representatives a “do-nothing Congress.” Based on activity alone, the moniker could be justified.

The 113th U.S. Congress is on track to pass fewer bills than any other as far back as the 80th Congress of 1947 to 1949, the first “do-nothing Congress,” as nicknamed by then-President Harry Truman. And, even that Congressional body passed more than 500 pieces of legislation. This one will be lucky to top 200. The 112th Congress passed 220.

If low productivity is the problem, is political polarization part of the cause? Many think it is, which begs another question: What is creating the level of polarization now evident on Capital Hill, the type of partisan politics that witnessed Republicans voting for some 50 pieces of legislation aimed at changing Obamacare and six attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act in its entirety? Reza Mousavi, an information systems doctoral  student at the W. P. Carey School of Business, thought social media might be a contributor. He teamed with his advisor, Information Systems Professor Bin Gu, whose own body of research has examined many societal impacts of social media.

Like-minded souls

Mousavi and Gu borrowed from past research to conduct an award-winning investigation on how Twitter might affect a Congress member’s political polarity or adherence to his or her own party’s ideology.

One piece of research was conducted by Gu, who looked at people interacting via the Yahoo Finance online forum. Gu based his investigation on cognitive dissonance theory, which holds that people will avoid the mental stress of confronting information that veers from their own beliefs. His observations confirmed that the online forum did show homophily, the word for peoples’ preference to interact with others who have similar backgrounds or opinions.

As Gu and Mousavi noted in a recent paper, some researchers maintain that because online communities make it easier for people to find and interact with like-minded folks, homophily in online communities is inevitable. Internet technology makes it easier for people to filter what they see and read, making it all the more likely Democrats might follow Rachel Maddow’s blog while Republicans might prefer podcasts of Rush Limbaugh.

Given the human tendency toward homophily, another social science concept comes into play: repeated expression. “What social scientists have found is that people who repeatedly express their opinion toward something become more extreme in that opinion,” Mousavi says. “Repeated attitude expressions increase the accessibility of the attitude. The more you say something, the more you think it.”

Other research has shown that “increases in accessibility of an idea lead to greater attitude-behavior consistency,” Mousavi continues. “When it’s easier for you to recall something, your behavior and attitude become more consistent.”

These findings constitute the crux of what Mousavi and Gu built their investigation upon:  “Repeated expressions are at least partly responsible for attitude extremity,” Mousavi says. “That’s basically the core component of our theory. If you repeatedly express something, your attitude becomes more extreme in favor of your stated position.”

You are what you tweet

In light of these study results, it would make sense that the more someone tweets an opinion on Twitter, the more vehemently that person will maintain his or her position. This is what Mousavi and Gu examined.

“We collected more than 200,000 tweets posted by Congress members from Sept. 2013 until May 2014,” he notes. “Anything they posted, we collected.”

In addition, he says, “We wanted to know if tweets are most often aligned with the political party of the Congressman. Repeating them would cause polarization,” according to the theory of repeated expression.

Uncovering this data took some doing. For one thing, Mousavi had to understand the content of the tweets. “Simply collecting the tweets doesn’t help us,” he explains. “We had to do text mining too, we did two analyses.”

First, Mousavi needed to determine if the tweets were positive or negative, so he did a sentiment analysis. Next, he had to determine what exactly was being praised or panned by the Congress member. “Even though the Congress person said something positive, it doesn’t necessarily mean it was positive and politically oriented. It could have been positive comment about having a great lunch. We had to get rid of the noisy tweets.”

To do this, Mousavi ran the data through a program with two classifiers to see if the tweets were about Republicans or Democrats and whether they were relevant tweets or the noisy ones. Based on these variables, he could see if the tweets were positive posts about the Congress member’s own political party or negative ones about the opposing party.

Finally, the team compared Twitter behavior against a model of polarization created by political scientists. That model scores legislators’ voting history via traditional liberal vs. conservative identifiers.

“What we hypothesized was that if a person said more positive things about their own political party, that person would become more extreme or aligned with the political party,” Mousavi says.  But, research results didn’t quite prove the point.

The power of opinion

The hypothesis made a lot of sense, given the theories Mousavi and Gu worked from as well as data on political ideology extremism. Polarization has seen an ever-widening gap since the 1970s, the researches note, and a study by political scientist Keith Poole found a steep rise in polarization beginning in 1993, around the time online forums started becoming popular.

However, as Mousavi points out, preliminary results indicate that, “Congress members’ social media engagement results in moderate voting behavior. That is, Congress members who frequently post politically relevant tweets tend to become less polarized over time.”

Likewise, congressional representatives who gain more followers in Twitter also vote moderately in Congress.

Did Twitter impact polarization at all? Perhaps. The researchers found that Congressional representatives who follow more users on Twitter tend to be more extreme in their political behavior, and those from states with highly polarized constituents post more politically relevant tweets.

Gu explains that, “Congress members are impacted by other Congress members in the same state. There is a competition for who is more extreme, who can be more conservative or liberal.” Naturally, he adds, this is an informal competition, as the legislators represent different districts and don’t compete head-to-head for their seats in Congress.

Despite this friendly jostling for ideological dominance, Gu’s other research shows that listening to constituents via social media tends to make all congressional representatives more conservative. What’s more, when members of congress and their constituents are ideologically mismatched, Gu found that the legislators tended to move closer to the position of voters following adoption of Twitter.

“This potentially could be because social media is an open forum,” Gu says. “Although a legislator follows people from the same party, he or she also hears people’s voices from other parties. You can follow whomever you want to follow, but the people in your district can comment, and you cannot ignore their voices.”

As Mousavi notes, “Overall, the public is becoming more conservative in the U.S. The fact that Congress is becoming more conservative too is suggesting that they’re moving in the same direction, which is support for findings of our studies.”

Business unusual

As of July 31, when the 113th Congress was gearing down before its five-week August recess, Drew DeSilver of Pew Research Center noted that, “the current Congress had enacted 142 laws, the fewest of any Congress in the past two decades over an equivalent timespan. And, only 108 of those enactments were substantive pieces of legislation.”

Other legislation includes ceremonial bills, such as those that award Congressional Gold Medals or name government buildings, like Coast Guard buildings and air traffic control centers, which are among the things this class of congressional representative did indeed name. Plus, there are ‘must-pass’ bills, which include reauthorizations of existing law.  According to The Hill, a Washington, D.C.-based newspaper, most of the bills that cleared the 113th congress fall into these two latter categories.

Among the policy-changing legislation passed this year, you’ll find things like the Freedom to Fish Act, which prohibits the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from restricting public access to waters downstream of a dam on the Cumberland River. Who would fight that?

Speaking about the 113th Congress, Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University, was quoted in of U.S. News and World Report as saying, “Even the Do-Nothing Congress did a lot of stuff involving the Cold War. This Congress has literally done almost nothing. They haven’t addressed the big issues, and they haven’t addressed even the small problems.”

But, according to Mousavi and Gu, 98 percent of these legislators have active Twitter accounts.

Let’s hope they give us something to tweet about soon.

Bottom line

  • Social science researchers have found that people prefer to interact with like-minded people.
  • Since Internet technology makes it easy to filter what they see, hear and read, people are more likely to follow information sources that agree with their own political orientation.
  • Social science also has shown that the more people talk about an opinion, the more extreme their opinion is likely to become.
  • Given these findings, two W. P. Carey School researchers looked at the Tweets of Congressional representatives to see if those who repeated party-favorable comments most often also were the most extreme.
  • Posting activity in Twitter wasn’t correlated with political polarization in this study, however Congress members who followed more extreme views did appear more polarized in their own opinions and votes.