Does Social Media Polarize Our Elected Officials? Short Answer, Yes. Long Answer, It’s Complicated

By Alexander Heller

Social media has changed the way people interact in politics in the U.S. and how politicians interact with their constituents. Since the founding of both Facebook and Twitter, politics as a whole became more heated and more personal. Suddenly, large swaths of people have the power to voice their concerns, albeit at the behest of qualified politicians. As people are becoming more involved with the political process it begs the question. How does social media influence political participation in the U.S.?

Relating to the larger question, I wanted to see whether or not if social media outlets, like Twitter, create polarizing voters as they continue to foster echo chambers online. I wanted to understand if people’s engagement on social media increases next to their political polarization. While it’s nearly impossible [and some-what illegal] to track every American’s social media posts, I decided to take into account the Twitter engagement of US Senators and members of Congress. Seeing as they post online to their constituents as well as possibly foster their own echo chamber.

Throughout the research process I wanted to take into account several key factors. Their age; their party affiliation; the state or congressional district they represent; the victory percentage in their last election; the victory percentage the President acquired in their state or district; how often they vote alongside the President; the number of posts they’ve made on Twitter in the thousands; And how polarizing they are according to DW Nominate.

According to the data that was gathered, there seems to be a negative relationship between how often a member of Congress participates on social media and how polarizing they are in office. The graph below takes into account representatives’ position on DW Nominate, as well as the number of posts they’ve made on Twitter.

Graph courtesy by RStudio Cloud.

DW Nominate measures an individual’s political position on issues. Anyone between -1.0 and 0.0 is measured as liberal, and anyone between 0.0 and 0.0 and 1.0 is measured as conservative. The closer a representative is to 0.0, the more center they are on political issues.

However, what’s interesting is that the results show that the larger a member of Congress’s victory percentage is the less polarizing they are in office. Furthermore, the fewer posts a polarizing member makes the larger their victory percentage. Also, the more well-known or “popular” a member of Congress is the more posts they make. Which can be viewed, by some, as polarizing. 

Courtesy of RStudio Cloud

Younger members of Congress are more engaged with social media than older ones, but there are a few outliers in that case. Bernie Sanders, Rand Paul, Chuck Schumer, and Lindsey Graham are among the exceptions age wise.

Photo courtesy by Business Insider

Also, individuals who tend to be in the middle, according to DW Nominate, aren’t as thoroughly engaged in social media as they should be. This implies that certain members of Congress would rather display party politics in a public setting other than social media.

Although there is indeed a negative relationship between the number of posts a politician makes and how polarizing they are, that’s not to say that social media doesn’t influence politicians in anyway. According to a recent study by Pew Research, trust in the news media in the era of Trump is bitterly divided among Republicans and Democrats. With another study saying that Republicans are far more likely to believe that fact-checkers favor one side.

Furthermore, as more than 68% of Americans continue to get their news on social media, it becomes increasingly difficult for Americans to distinguish whether or not a politician is saying something that resonates with only their party or Americans as whole. 

Social Media is here to stay and will determine the outcomes of many political movements for years to come. Exactly what those outcomes will be is up for the fates to decide. Who knows, if current Twitter trends continue we might actually see Oprah get elected as president.

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