Trump responded by blaming Twitter for policing conservative voices on its platform. He also signed an executive order on May 28 that opens the door to government regulation of social media companies. Now, platforms could lose their legal immunity to potential lawsuits over the content on their sites.
The executive order calls on the Federal Trade Commission to collect complaints about social media bias and probe whether content moderation policies on social media are in keeping with their pledge of neutrality. An earlier White House order in August 2019 instructed the FTC to create new rules that protect against perceived content moderation bias.
Conservatives have long alleged that Twitter and Facebook have a liberal bias, complaining that Twitter mutes conservatives on its platform. But our new study of the U.S. Twitter landscape doesn’t bear this out. Instead, we found that partisan political accounts are more of a sideshow on Twitter in America.
How we did our research
We wanted to understand whether the content that Americans see on Twitter is ideologically biased. What people see on their timeline or feed depends on the users they follow. So we set about identifying the Twitter accounts that most Americans are following. We used random samples of ordinary American Twitter users to identify the top 1,800 most-followed “opinion leaders” on Twitter and then categorized them by profession or genre. More information about the data and the methodology are available here.
Political content is marginal on Twitter
First, based on the number of followers in our samples, we found that U.S. political figures and hard-news outlets aren’t actually that popular on Twitter. The Twitter accounts of Barack Obama and Trump have the most followers. But the overall public outreach of entertainers, public figures and celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres, Drake, Rihanna and Kanye West is far higher than that of politicians, as the figure below shows. While only 20 percent of our sample followed a hard-news account, such as Anderson Cooper 360, approximately 80 percent followed entertainment accounts.
There were also far more entertainment accounts than accounts for politics. This suggests that most Americans don’t tune in to Twitter for politics.
To ascertain the overall ideological bias of these opinion leaders, we used an established algorithm that measures ideology by checking whether a Twitter user follows well-known liberals and conservatives. We considered those who only follow liberals as “liberal” themselves; likewise, we tallied people who follow only conservatives as “conservative.” Those who follow a mix of liberals and conservatives fall in between these extremes. Those who did not follow any of the pre-identified liberals or conservatives we categorized as “moderate.”
While this step estimates the distribution of political beliefs on Twitter, it does not account for the relative volume of tweets from the left versus the right. So our next step was to weight the ideology of each of the 1,800 top opinion leaders on Twitter by their average monthly tweeting frequency from January to March 2019.
No, conservative opinion leaders aren’t underrepresented
If we just consider the distribution of ideology on Twitter, without taking into account how often these top opinion leaders tweet, we see that Twitter broadly represents the entire spectrum of ideologies, as shown on the left side of the figure. In fact, there are more conservative opinion leaders on the platform than liberal ones.
Once we account for tweeting frequency, as shown in the right side of the figure, Twitter is a remarkably centrist platform. The loudest voices on Twitter are those who hold moderate positions.
Moreover, the ideology of opinion leaders in each category was broadly diverse and centered around being moderate. In fact, in three of the categories closely related to U.S. politics — media outlets, political pundits and hard-news accounts — there were relatively more active conservative accounts among the opinion leaders than there were liberal accounts.
Our analyses suggest that Twitter is home to a diversity of popular accounts. From politics to entertainment, sports to science, and hard-news to memes, content of all kinds attracts a huge following, we discovered. The most visible information circulating on Twitter does not appear to be ideologically biased in any particular direction.
Each Twitter user, of course, will see content specific to the choices they make on the platform. Choosing whom to follow potentially reflects a user’s motivation to seek out specific content. It may not always depict what the overall platform has to offer.
Most ordinary Twitter users don’t seem to prioritize following political accounts as much as they care about following sports, public figures and celebrities. So what’s the lesson for the rest of us political junkies? Our Twitter feeds are far from being representative of real life. In fact, what we see on Twitter isn’t even representative of Twitter at large.
Subhayan Mukerjee (@wrahool) is a research fellow and recent PhD from the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.
Kokil Jaidka (@feedkoko) is an assistant professor at the Department of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore.
Yphtach Lelkes (@ylelkes) is an assistant professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.