The Pew Research Center has released a study analyzing the difference between the reactions to events on Twitter and in the public at large. Its conclusion: the reaction of Twitter users to events in the news are usually more liberal and nearly always more negative than the opinion of the general population.
Pew points out that the collection tweets that it analyzed indicate that the majority of Twitter users lean towards the left. The reasons that they list are compelling and hardly surprising. However, if it is accepted that the majority of Twitter users are liberal, there is another approach that can be taken towards the Center’s data in which an interesting trend emerges.
In the four situations in which Twitter users were much more in support of the left than the general public, liberal ideology was being challenged. These situations included the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act, the first presidential debate, President Barack Obama’s reelection, and the California same-sex marriage ruling.
In the three situations in which a liberal ideology was being defined but not challenged, Twitter users were solidly neutral towards the situation, showing less negativity but far less positivity towards the events than the general public. These include Obama’s second inauguration speech, the appointment of John Kerry to Secretary of State, and the recent State of the Union address. Within this group, only the reaction to the State of the Union address was more negative than the general public’s. In one instance, Twitter fairly corresponded to the general public. When Romney chose Ryan as his running mate, a event firmly in the conservative camp, Twitter users responded much the way the country did as a whole, negatively.
Regardless of how these stances are interpreted or explained, Pew notes the overall negativity of the tweets that stand out in the study. Could this be solid proof that liberals are whiners? Not exactly. The most likely reason that Twitter proved so negative is exactly because of the central question that Pew was researching. Pew wanted to know people’s reactions. When the Center interviewed the general public, some degree of time passed between the event and the interview. A emotional response to an event, good or bad, can subside significantly with time, even in a matter of minutes. When measuring Twitter responses, the Pew Center reviewed opinions that were largely recorded during the course of the event. As a whole, the tweets were more emotionally immediate than the interviews.
But why the negativity? Why isn’t can't the Twitter community be more exuberant with optimism? Though Twitter posts tend to be charged with some degree of emotion, Twitter users also have a public role to maintain on the system. Every tweet is an act of defining its writer to the larger community. It is often most expedient to define ourselves by our enemies, by what we are not. Social media provides an excellent platform to ridicule, satirise, decry, and excoriate that which we do not like.
A challenge to one’s ideology, if it is at the core of their identity, is a challenge to one’s identity. Political stances play a significant role in defining the identities of many Americans. As American politics and society grows more polarized, politics becomes a zero-sum game. If one party advances its agenda, the majority of the country usually perceives it to be at the expense of the other’s. This lamentable situation leads Democrats and Republicans to hold each other in contempt. Often even entertaining the idea of a different ideological approach can be upsetting for many Americans. Pew’s study corroborates this phenomenon. When an event threatens liberal ideology, it creates a surge of negative emotions among the the largely liberal Twitter user population. This negativity is then vented via tweets.
However, when an event defines liberal stances, the majority of the Twitter population does not rush to condone it but remains neutral. Perhaps this trend indicates that the majority of Americans are not so blindly ideological that they will drink their party’s Kool-Aid without thinking about it first.