APSA conference roundup: Research on political polarization on social media and the U.S. Congress

September 17, 2018

APSA conference roundup: Research on political polarization on social media and the U.S. Congress

(Henryk Sadura/Tetra Images via Getty Images)

The ways that social media shape political attitudes and the intricacies of lawmaking in the U.S. Congress were two of the many topics at the American Political Science Association Annual Conference in Boston earlier this month. Here are brief summaries of some highlights from the conference across sessions on those topics, which represent a small portion of the full agenda. Several of these papers relate to Pew Research Center work on congressional rhetoric, news on social media and political discussion on social media. As is true of many academic conferences, some of these results may be preliminary and could later be revised; several of the papers we mention are not yet published in peer-reviewed journals. The full conference program is available here.

On social media, exposure to the other side can increase political polarization. In a paper that was published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in late August, researchers recruited a nonprobability sample of U.S. adults to test whether seeing tweets from those on the other side of the ideological spectrum makes political attitudes more or less polarized. They found that Republicans who hold ideologically conservative views often become even more likely to hold strong views when they follow a bot on Twitter that tweets views that run counter to their own.

Online organizing can be a potent political force – even when it’s not done publicly. During the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton supporters around the country met in private Facebook groups to organize, share experiences and find community. A researcher at the University of Texas, Austin, surveyed members of one of these groups and analyzed their posts using a novel method that took care to ensure group members’ privacy. She found that people’s most common reason for joining these groups was to find solidarity or to express political opinions in a safe space.

Some of the most divisive political ads on Facebook during the 2016 election were from groups that did not disclose their funding sources. Using data from people’s Facebook feeds across the U.S., researchers found that many of the very divisive political ads that people received did not come from any campaigns or known issue groups. Instead, they were paid for by groups that were not registered or whose information could not be determined. This research was published in the journal Political Communication.

Incivility from political leaders is relatively rare, but it gains a lot of attention when it does appear. An analysis of Twitter data from researchers at the University of Texas, San Antonio, found that only a very small portion of tweets from members of Congress contain uncivil language. But the uncivil tweets that did exist got more engagement, regardless of gender, partisanship, number of followers or frequency of tweeting. In another study, a researcher from Tufts University found that political leaders who are female or nonwhite are more likely to face incivility and hostility on social media, regardless of what they tweet. Overall, women in politics, and especially nonwhite women, face more negative reactions online than their male peers.

Legislative staff experience level matters for lawmaking. Researchers from three universities examined the backgrounds of congressional staffers to assess how much having a more experienced legislative staff benefits lawmakers. They found that having individual legislative staffers with high levels of experience was more important than having large staffs when it came to legislative productivity. However, committee chairs were the group most likely to have experienced staff, and thus were especially likely to benefit from them.

For corporations, connections with Congress are important. A University of Oxford researcher found that of 685 financial corporations, those that spent on lobbying, campaigns, or that had personal connections with politicians received larger bailouts during the 2009 Troubled Asset Relief Program. On average, corporations with these political connections received a higher share of bailout funds after the financial crisis by 2.4 percentage points.

Topics: Congress, Social Media, Federal Government, Political Polarization

  1. is a computational social scientist focusing on journalism research at Pew Research Center.

  2. Photo of Adam Hughes

    is a computational social scientist at Pew Research Center.


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