Pew: Twitter chatter about GOP candidates less factual, more negative

A new study finds Twitter, blogs and mainstream media each paint different pictures of the presidential candidates.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism analyzed all tweets and a sampling of political blogs and mainstream media outlets, from May to November, and used human-trained algorithms to categorize each mention of a political candidate as positive, negative or neutral.

Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, gestures while speaking at a town hall meeting in Keene, N.H., Monday, Nov. 21, 2011. (Cheryl Senter/AP)

The research found traditional media are most likely to produce coverage that reflects neutrally on a candidate, while posts on political blogs are more likely to show a candidate in either a positive or negative light. “The political discussion on Twitter,” meanwhile, “is measurably different than the one found in the blogosphere — more voluminous, more fluid and even less neutral.”

Here are some highlights from the findings.

Mainstream media plays it neutral

For each candidate, coverage by the mainstream outlets was more often neutral than it was positive or negative.

Some may take that as a good thing -- a sign of fairness or impartiality -- but in some cases it seems to show the media out of touch with the public.

The most stark contrast surrounds Congressman Ron Paul, who seems to get little respect from mainstream media despite being the darling of blogs and Twitter. Coverage of Paul had the most favorable tone on both Twitter (55 percent positive) and political blogs (47 percent positive) out of all candidates. In the mainstream news sources, only 23 percent of mentions were positive, while 61 percent were neutral.

Tweets about candidates have been less factual and more negative than blog posts or mainstream media coverage about the same candidates.

Paul was the fifth-most-mentioned candidate on blogs and Twitter, but second-to-last in the mainstream media, ahead only of Rick Santorum.

Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Rick Perry saw the opposite effect. Mentions of Perry on Twitter and blogs were 44 percent and 55 percent negative, respectively. Mainstream news, however, was only 25 percent negative, with 29 percent positive.

As for the president, “Obama’s most sharply negative assessment has come from the news media, not social media.”

“The [Twitter] narrative is negative. Overall, 17% of the assertions about him have been positive, 51% negative and 33% neutral. In blogs, it was somewhat less critical, 14% positive, 38% negative and 48% neutral. But the ratio of negative to positive assertions was higher, almost 4-to-1 in news coverage (at 9% positive, 35% negative and 56% neutral). It is in news, indeed, that the President received the lowest percentage of positive statements.”

Blog attitudes hold steady

While the political sentiments on Twitter tend to fluctuate with the events of the day, blogs are more entrenched.

“In the blogosphere,” the study says, “the authors seem to have made up their minds and ... the tone about candidates shifts relatively little. On Twitter, the conversation about a candidate sometimes changed markedly from week to week, shifting from positive to negative and vice versa.”

Twitter amplifies the extremes

Compared to other media, Twitter seems to have the most-opinionated content, and often picked up and amplified the positive or negative sentiments from blogs.

“The data find that [Twitter] is less neutral — far less so than news coverage, but even less neutral than blogs. Only two candidates, [Mitt] Romney and [Newt] Gingrich, had a higher percentage of neutral assessments on Twitter. ...

“For most candidates, however, the percentage of neutral statements was markedly smaller on Twitter than in blogs and much smaller than in the news coverage, where neutral assessments comprised the largest component of each candidate’s coverage.”

Why so? The study infers that the brevity of Twitter forces each tweet to extract the most provocative statement from a news item. Opinionated tweets also are more likely to spread through retweeting.

"After 25 straight weeks in which the discussion about Gingrich on Twitter was more negative than positive -- usually by double-digit differentials sometimes as large as 57 points -- the Twitter consensus has shifted with Gingrich's new poll numbers," PEJ reports.

Celebrity, viral jokes drive Twitter

The study shows how one good tweet can spread widely and account for a lot of the overall sentiment at any given time.

“Some weeks, traffic about a candidate was driven by pithy (and often pointed) quips — sometimes from celebrities with large followings on Twitter — that would rapidly spread and reach enormous volume. Late night talk host Conan O’Brien generated plenty of attention when he tweeted, in an unflattering reference to Newt Gingrich’s appearance, that the former Speaker ‘is the #1 candidate in the ‘Could be Related to Bilbo Baggins’ category.’ (Baggins was a character in J.R.R. Tolkien’s book, "The Hobbit"). That week, 59% of the Twitter opinions about Gingrich were negative compared with only 17% positive.”

“In that same vein, Perry’s reference to Social Security as a Ponzi scheme during a September 7 presidential debate generated a pun-ish response comparing the candidate’s coiffure to that of a 1970’s sitcom character: ‘Rick Perry’s hair is a Fonzi scheme.’ That week, Perry had a tough narrative on Twitter, with negative assertions exceeding positive ones by 44 percentage points.”

I should add, if you’ve made it this far, that this is a very detailed 35-page study, with data and discussion about each individual candidate, so read it yourself if you’re a political junkie who wants to dive deeper.

A couple complicating factors to keep in mind as you consider the findings:

Even though they are more participatory media, “neither Twitter nor blogs function in general as a form of vox populi that either reflects or anticipates changes in public mood as expressed in representative samples of the population in polling,” the study found. “Sometimes these social media move with polls, but often they do not.”

Another caveat I would add: While this study analyzed Twitter and the blogosphere as a whole, no one consumes it that way. Each individual’s experience depends on whom she follows on Twitter and which blogs she choose to read, decisions usually prejudiced by her personal ideology and interests.

In the same way that national opinion polls cannot predict the outcome of a presidential race decided state-by-state in the Electoral College, a global survey of tweets, blogs and media doesn’t tell us what news is actually getting through the filters of your average conservative, liberal or independent voter. Perhaps that’s for another study.

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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