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Liberals Engage With More Diverse Policy Topics and Toxic Content Than Do Conservatives on Social Media (WP-23-08)

Ho-Chun Herbert Chang, James Druckman, Emilio Ferrara, and Robb Willer

The rise of social media provides citizens with direct access to information shared by political elites. Yet, more than ever before, citizens play a critical role in diffusing elite-generated content. What kinds of content spread on social media? Do conservative and liberal citizens differ in the elite content with which they engage? These questions relate to long-standing academic and popular debates about whether political behavior is symmetric or asymmetric with respect to political ideology. The researchers analyze more than 13 million users’ retweets of messages by U.S. Members of Congress on Twitter from 2009 to 2019, leveraging estimates of users’ political ideology constructed from over 3.5 billion prior retweets. They find limited evidence for ideological symmetry where the strength of ideology predicts diffusion choices similarly on the left and right. In contrast, the authors find robust support for ideological asymmetry. Consistent with theories of ideological asymmetry, liberals retweeted a more diverse set of policy topics than conservatives by 19.4%. They also engaged more with toxic content from in-group elites by 56%. Given the tendency for people to follow like-minded others on social media, these diffusion patterns imply that liberals are exposed to more politically diverse and toxic elite-generated content on social media, while conservatives receive more politically homogeneous and less toxic content.  The demand and supply dynamics of political information suggest the existence of polarized information bubbles such that liberals and conservatives reside in distinct information ecosystems.

Significance Statement: Most Americans now receive at least some political information through social media platforms. However, social media users not only consume information, but they also play a critical role in determining its — potentially polarizing — diffusion. While existing research considers how messages spread, scant work explores the audience’s perspective. Analyzing ten years of Twitter data with the labeling of users’ ideologies (derived from the content of their prior social media activity), the researchers explore how liberals and conservatives engage with political information from political elites. They find evidence that liberals engage (measured via re-tweeting) with more diverse perspectives (i.e., a wider range of policy topics) than conservatives. They also exhibit greater receptivity to toxic content. Because people tend to follow other users with similar views to their own, these findings suggest that liberals may find themselves in more diverse, but also more toxic, information environments than their conservative counterparts on social media.

Ho-Chun Herbert Chang, School of Communication, University of Southern California

James Druckman, Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science and IPR Fellow, Northwestern University

Emilio Ferrara, Professor of Communication, Computer Science, and Preventive Medicine, University of Southern California

Robb Willer, Professor of Sociology and Director, Polarization and Social Change Lab, Stanford University

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