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New Pew Study Explores Twitter's Political Echo Chamber, Finds It Loves Ron Paul

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, December 8 2011

Political conversations on Twitter are more volatile than those taking place on blogs or in mainstream news sources, according to a study released today by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The analysis of around 20 million tweets from May 2 to November 27 found that political conversations on Twitter were more volatile and less neutral than blogs or mainstream news sources, a fact that affected the Republican candidates for president in different ways. Yes, Pew research can be so seemingly common-sensical that it has its own parody Twitter account. (Fake Pew Research findings: 98.5% of cardigan owners will kill again; People talking to themselves on the bus this morning: 35% Have a phone; 62% Don't have a phone; 3% Undecided.) But it also brings more data to conversations that are often dominated by other research that is more narrow in scope.

Ron Paul, who receives less coverage in mainstream media, seems to be benefit the most from Twitter, said Mark Jurkowitz, the associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, who co-wrote the report, in an interview.

"His ratio of positive assessments to negative assessments is not only overwhelming, it far exceeds that of the other candidates," Jurkowitz said. "He has clearly struck a chord on social media." According to the report, from May through November, fully 55 percent of the assertions about him on Twitter were positive, the highest of any candidate, while 15 percent -- the lowest percentage of any candidate -- were negative. The only other candidate to have more positive comments than negative ones was Jon Huntsman, Jurkowitz noted. "While Huntsman was well-received, he wasn't talked about all that much," he said. Only Rick Santorum saw fewer mentions than Huntsman on Twitter.

Michelle Bachmann appeared to resonate the worst on Twitter. Of all the assertions about her, 12 percent were positive compared to the 63 percent that were negative. "She also did not do well on blogs and the news coverage she got was more positive," Jurkowitz said. "But she got her harshest assessment on Twitter."

The conversation on Twitter did seem to mirror polling and mainstream media coverage in some ways. Herman Cain had a mixed, often more positive than negative narrative on Twitter up until the week of October 30th, when Politico first published a report alleging that he had engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior, Jurkowitz said. From that point on, he added, Cain began to be the subject of more — and more negative — remarks.

"When you're getting a lot of attention, and it turns negative, there is a meme about you that is out there," he said.

Similarly, Newt Gingrich had a "relentlessly negative" narrative up until the last three weeks, when it started to become more mixed.

"It does reflect his rise in polls but it doesn't reflect an irrational exuberance," Jurkowitz said. "If Twitter were just about good or bad, he would be off the charts."

Mitt Romney, the long-presumed Republican frontrunner, was the second most-discussed candidate after Cain and saw a more negative tone than a positive one, with 40 percent negative reactions to 19 percent positive reactions, according to the report.

President Barack Obama saw more assertions on Twitter than all the Republican candidates combined, the report states, but also had a negative narrative: 17 percent of assertions about Obama were positive, while 51 percent of assertions about the twitterer-in-chief were negative.

"Blogs and Twitter are functioning quite differently," Jurkowitz said. "Twitter conversations are reacting very closely to day to day events of a campaign. People are watching a debate for notable moment or gaffe, and immediately a twitter meme develops, " he went on to say. "In the blogsophere people have made up their minds, it's more immune to what's actually happening on the campaign trail." The authors conclude that "among [the report's] findings is that Twitter and blogs differ enough that the concept of social media as a single form of communication is probably an oversimplification."

With 13 percent of American saying they are on Twitter, and a higher representation among younger, male and non-white populations, in some ways Twitter can be more representative, Jurkowitz suggested. But he also noted the influence of celebrity or other prominent people on Twitter, such as when Conan O'Brian compared Newt Gingrich to J.R. R. Tolkien's hobbit Bilbo Baggins. Often functioning as stand-up comedy, a good one-liner can have a long reach on Twitter, Jurkowitz pointed out.

The increased prominence of negative sentiment on Twitter fits with prior research, said Justin Buchler, a professor of political science at Case Western Reserve University.

"The people who are most politically engaged, are not the most centrist," said Buchler, who had not looked at the new study in detail. "The type of dialogue that is more appealing, is negative."

But he said that widespread negativity on Twitter did not necessarily mean that campaigns were becoming more negative. "In the early 1800s the types of negative comments people said make modern political dialogue tame," he said. "I'm not sure that Twitter is changing that need to define yourself and define your opponent," he added.

"What we don't yet know," Jurkowitz said, "is how this conversation will influence what ultimately happens at the ballot box."