A lot of people think that Twitter enables its users to reinforce their biases, because they can choose to follow like-minded people. However, new research suggests that Twitter is a potentially fantastic tool for exposing individuals to more varied viewpoints than any other media – and even if a liberal follows only Democrats, she’ll see more variety than she expects.
The research paper The Media Landscape in Twitter comes from a joint effort between U.K.’s University of Cambridge, Korea’s Graduate School of cultural Technology-KAIST, and Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Software Systems. It examined just what political views and media sources people were exposed to on Twitter.
By looking at tweets and retweets, the researchers were able to examine the type of political messages Twitter users regularly saw. And they found that Twitter is indeed a partisan space, with many users adhering to one political viewpoint or another quite strongly – yet Twitter also exposed its users to more political diversity than most other news sources.
On Twitter, people are exposed to between 60 and 98 percent more diverse political news sources, simply through what they see in tweets and retweets. This is significantly higher than traditional media, and shows that on Twitter, users’ political viewpoints are constantly being challenged.
Among the Twitter users studied, 50.8 percent show some form of political bias in the accounts they chose to follow. And the breakdown of just how political these users are: 62 percent showed left-leaning bias, 37 percent were centrist, and only 1 percent was right-leaning. It’s possible this points to a more liberal leaning on Twitter than elsewhere, or these numbers could be skewed due to a relatively small sample size.
Exposure to media sources on Twitter, the study found, is not all about whether you follow 5 or 10 newspapers. It’s more about your extended network, and the media accounts they follow: although about 80 percent of Twitter users follow about 10 media accounts, they are exposed to between 6 and 10 times more than this through the tweets and retweets their connections send out.
This political diversity on Twitter diverges from traditional research into online social networks, which usually suggests that people simply follow or friend those who share their political biases, and thus reinforce their own. However, it looks like Twitter might be a special case, challenging even firmly-held political stances by exposing users to a variety of opinions and news sources.