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Segregated communities of polarized Twitter users are shaping online conversations about COVID-19

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An analysis of millions of tweets sent during the early stages of the novel coronavirus outbreak in the United States suggests that polarized discussions on Twitter have increasingly politicized the issue of COVID‐19.

The study found that right-leaning Twitter users display an aversion to hashtags related to COVID-19 prevention, while left-leaning users “are overly critical” of the federal administration.

The findings have been published in Human Behavior and Emerging Technologies.

“COVID-19 had a dramatic impact on people’s lives but differently so across different U.S. states. From social to economic policies, to public health decisions, all these issues are intertwined with political decisions from federal, state, and local governments. In this study, we wanted to understand the interplay between COVID-19, politics, and social media discourse,” said study author Emilio Ferrara, an associate professor at USC Annenberg School of Communication.

For their study, the researchers analyzed a database of 87 million tweets related to COVID‐19 from 13 million Twitter users. More than 14 million of those tweets were sent by individuals in the United States between January 21, 2020, and April 3, 2020.

“As the pandemic progressed, we observed a shared sense of urgency and strengthened local community engagement,” Ferrara said. But the researchers also observed a clear partisan divide.

The top hashtags sent by Twitter users in Democratic‐leaning states were “overwhelmingly critical” of the Trump administration, the researchers found. These hashtags included #trumpvirus and #pencedemic. In contrast, the top hashtags sent by Twitter users in Republican‐leaning states expressed support for the administration and used slogans of the Trump 2020 re‐election campaign, such as #trump2020 and #kag.

Ferrara and his colleagues also found that conspiracy theory hashtags, such as #billgates, #bioweapon, and #qanon, were among the first to gain popularity on Twitter, followed by hashtags related to how the outbreak was impacting health and economy.

The researchers observed four distinct clusters of hashtags: conspiracy, right‐leaning, left‐leaning/neutral, and health/prevention. Those who tweeted conspiracy hashtags and right‐leaning hashtags were significantly less likely to retweet health and prevention hashtags compared to those who tweeted left‐leaning or neutral hashtags.

“We observe that political polarization plays a key role in shaping the conversation about COVID-19. Partisanship correlates with sentiment toward government measures: right-leaning users tend to voice their dissent with social distancing and other containment measures, whereas left-leaning users are more likely to share health and prevention messaging,” Ferrara told PsyPost.

“Cross‐ideological interactions are limited by users’ segregating in polarized communities. We also observe a correlation between user engagement with topics related to public health and the varying impact of the disease outbreak in different U.S. states.”

The researchers used Botometer, a bot detection API, to exclude potentially inauthentic Twitter accounts from their analysis. But the study — like all research — still includes some limitations. “In this study, data is mostly aggregated at the state level. A more in-depth analysis in the future could look into how individual political stances shape the conversation about COVID-19,” Ferrara explained.

The study, “Political polarization drives online conversations about COVID‐19 in the United States“, was authored by Julie Jiang, Emily Chen, Shen Yan, Kristina Lerman, and Emilio Ferrara.

(Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay)

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