To Stay Politically Neutral, Stay Off Twitter?

A warning to Tweeters. Prefer to keep your political leanings private? Then you better watch who you follow, not just what you tweet, according to a new study.

A warning to Tweeters. Prefer to keep your political leanings private? Then you better watch who you follow, not just what you tweet, according to a new study.

A group of Duke University professors say they can figure out how liberal or conservative someone is just by looking at who someone follows on Twitter, and who follows them back.

Their research, first reported by The New York Times, began in 2010 in an effort to rank candidates for office by their political ideology, from far-left to far-right, using their Twitter feeds.

The researchers, David B. Sparks, Frank J. Orlando and Aaron S. King, first analyzed the candidates’ Twitter networks – ie. who they followed and who followed them.

They then created a social graph assuming the accounts of candidates in the political center would have networks that look similar, and the two accounts that have the least in common would be marked the most conservative, on the one end, and the most liberal, on the other.

To confirm the accuracy of that graph, the researchers then compared the data from Twitter to a ranking based on the candidates’ voting history, from liberal-to-conservative.

What they found did not surprise: the social graph derived from Twitter aligned with the politicians’ ideological rankings derived from their voting records.

What lay underneath that result is what did surprise, and should be a warning, or wake up call, to all social media users: who you connect with and follow on social network sites is just as revealing as what you type.

“We don’t need to make any potentially arbitrary judgments about what constitutes left or right, and we don’t need to look at the words users are using, or anything like that,” Duke researcher David Sparks explained. “The order just emerges from the patterns in followings.”

A result certain to catch the eyes and ears of Washington, D.C., where politicians have been all abuzz and a tweet about Twitter, as well as the eyes and ears of virtual Main Street, ie. your everday social media users.

As the Times points out, “the idea that an instantaneous computer analysis could rank your relative conservatism or liberalism could be discomfiting for those who would like to remain out of the political debate, or who strive to remain politically neutral.”

Discomforting, of course, for private citizens who use sites like Twitter as a social tool, but even more so for public figures and news organizations who strive to, and often by necessity must, remain neutral.

And that’s where the researchers took their study next, to public figures, brands and the media (see figure below).

What they found was what you might expect, a curve that placed right-wing people and outlets like Michelle Malkin and The Weekly Standard at one end, left wing pundits like Ezra Klein and outlets like The Nation at the other end, and BBC News and C-Span in the middle.

It also plotted Katie Couric of CBS News, however, as only slightly less liberal than the Daily Kos, a far-left leaning blog.

And, taking on a news organization that has at been the center of highly partisan debate in recent days, it plotted NPR as somewhat to the left of center, but further to the right than Couric, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times or NBC News’ Brian Williams.

The Duke researchers say their research only extended to individuals and not corporations like Wal-Mart or Starbucks, “because their connections were too broad and not personal enough.”

See the New York Times’s complete rankings of Congressional candidates, media figures and political organizations here.