Character  &  Context

Understanding America’s Political Divide: New Methods Using Twitter and Self-Report data

IMage of the US outline with half blue and half red on the outside

Political polarization—the increasing ideological divide between liberals and conservatives—continues to engulf the United States, further inflaming the ongoing culture wars. Over the last several decades, differences in views between Democrats and Republican have been on the rise with 45% of Republicans and 41% of Democrats now thinking that the other party is a threat to the health of the country. Alongside the increasing cultural antagonism, the rise of polarization has been found to contribute to political gridlocks and unresponsive policies*.  

What is leading to this polarization? Research by Matt Motyl (University of Illinois at Chicago) suggests that a cause of polarization might be where people are choosing to live. Motyl’s research has found that people who perceived themselves to be politically out of place in their communities (e.g., Republicans in Democratic majority states) reported more difficulty forming close relationships and were more likely to migrate away. This segregation seems to be reflected in voting patterns. Since 1992, the percentage of people living in landslide districts where one party dominated over the other has risen from 30% to 75% in the recent 2016 election. As people self-segregate into distinct geographies, polarization might increase due to a lack of face to face encounters with those across party lines.  

New research by Motyl and Zachary Melton (also at the University of Illinois at Chicago) tested to see whether you can capture different political and moral values reflected strongly in different states in the U.S. In particular, Motyl and Melton tried to see if they could find similar patterns using over 200,000 self-report measures and over 754,00 Twitter profiles. Would moral values like purity and authority (which have been found to be more values by conservatives) be more widely expressed in Twitter and self-report measures within Republican states, for example? With the Twitter profiles, Motyl and Melton used a textual analysis program that scanned for words that were associated with different moral values.

They found some evidence that moral values of authority and purity were more strongly represented in Republican states across self-report and Twitter data. However, other results weren’t as consistent such as loyalty—another value that is highly rated by conservatives over liberals—where Twitter data didn’t line up with self-reported measures.

As scholars try to understand the sources of polarization using new sources of data, it’s important to be cautious about the sort of conclusions that can be drawn. Motyl noted that only 35% of the American population is on Twitter and that certain contextual factors (e.g., current events in each state) can play a big role in what sort of Twitter language is being used. Future work will look to better understand this political self-segregation and be better able to work with new sources of data that can lend evidence towards different conclusions about how the country is divided.


Written By: Abdo Elnakouri, PhD Candidate at the University of Waterloo

Session: "Mapping Moral Subcultures via Social Media," a talk presented at the Novel Methods for Analyzing Moral Meaning on Social Media symposium, held on February 8th, 2019

Speaker: Matt Motyl, University of Illinois at Chicago

Co-Author: Zachary Melton, University of Illinois at Chicago

*Reference: Hetherington, M. J., & Rudolph, T. J. (2015). Why Washington won't work: Polarization, political trust, and the governing crisis. University of Chicago Press.

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