5 facts about political tweeting in the U.S.

In the months before and after the contentious 2020 election, one-third of tweets from U.S. adults were about politics or political issues, according to a new Pew Research Center report. But what about the content and nature of these posts, such as when they were most prevalent on the site, or the terms that most distinguished political from nonpolitical tweets? 

Here are five facts about political content on Twitter, based on the Center’s analysis of almost 1 million English-language tweets from U.S. adults posted between May 1, 2020, and May 31, 2021.

Pew Research Center conducted this study to gain insight into Twitter users’ political engagement, attitudes and behaviors on Twitter. For this analysis, we surveyed 2,548 U.S. adult Twitter users in May 2021 about their experiences on the site, as well as how they engage with politics outside of Twitter. Everyone who took part in this survey is a member of the Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP) – an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses – and indicated that they use Twitter. 

Researchers from the Center also examined the actual Twitter profiles of a subset of survey participants who agreed to share their handles for research purposes. First, researchers collected all of the publicly visible tweets posted between May 2020 and May 2021 by these users. Researchers then used a machine learning classifier to identify which of those tweets mentioned politics or political concepts.

To identify keywords and phrases that were distinctive to political tweets, researchers first used pointwise mutual information to determine which terms were most likely to appear in a political tweet but not a nonpolitical tweet, then calculated the proportion of political tweets referencing each distinctive term or phrase as well as their common variations.

Here is the methodology used for this analysis.

A chart showing that a majority of political tweets from U.S. adults are retweets

A majority of political tweets from U.S. adults are retweets. U.S. adults on Twitter often post about politics using someone else’s words: 62% of tweets that the Center’s analysis identified as political were retweets, with no additional text from the user who shared them. That was significantly higher than the share of retweets in nonpolitical tweets posted by U.S. adults (38%).

The political tweets that users chose to retweet also tended to be quite popular, receiving more engagement across the platform than retweets of nonpolitical content. The typical (median) political tweet retweeted by Americans received a total of 4,312 likes – nearly three times as many as the median nonpolitical retweet (1,490 likes).

In the wake of major events, politics makes up a larger share of what U.S. adults tweet about than normal. At certain times over the study period, political content made up a larger-than-usual share of the posts from the Center’s representative sample of Twitter users, and some of the most notable increases coincided with major political and social events. For example, the share of political tweets was especially large in the weeks following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in May 2020, as well as during the period between the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and President Joe Biden’s inauguration later that month.

A line graph showing that politics makes up a larger share of what Americans tweet about following major political and social events

The daily volume of political tweeting from U.S. adults fluctuates much more than the daily volume of nonpolitical tweeting. On a typical day, the Center’s representative sample of 942 adult Twitter users together posted roughly twice as many nonpolitical tweets (1,206) as political tweets (565). But the volume of political tweeting itself varied widely from day to day. For example, on the busiest days for political tweeting, Americans posted over 14 times as many of these tweets as they did on the slowest days for political tweeting. By contrast, there was less than a threefold difference in tweet volume for nonpolitical tweets between the most and least active days for this type of content.

A bar chart showing that Trump tops the list of most distinctive terms in political tweets shared by U.S. adults

During the year studied, references to Donald Trump were more uniquely associated with political content on Twitter than any other term. Political content on Twitter touches on a wide array of issues, individuals and institutions of government. But certain terms are far more prevalent in political tweets than in nonpolitical ones. These “distinctive terms” are words or phrases that are much more likely to appear in a tweet about politics than in a nonpolitical tweet. In the Center’s year-long study period, no term or figure was more distinctive to political tweets than Trump.

Mentions of the former president – including variations on his name and Twitter handle – appeared in 28% of political tweets from U.S. adults during this time. Other distinctively political terms in these tweets included references to the presidency, the 2020 elections, Congress, and the Republican and Democratic parties.

Political tweets from Republicans and Democrats alike are more likely to mention the opposite party than their own. One-in-ten political tweets posted by Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents during the study period mentioned the Republican Party, while 7% of political tweets posted by Republicans and Republican leaners mentioned the Democratic Party. By comparison, both Democrats and Republicans mentioned their own parties in about 4% of their political tweets.

Note: Here is the methodology used for this analysis.

Samuel Bestvater  is a computational social scientist focusing on data science at Pew Research Center.

Sono Shah  is a computational social scientist focusing on data science at Pew Research Center.



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