Twitter analysis tells volumes about climate politics

Many senators stuck in a social media echo chamber

Staff Report

University researchers took a deep dive into the world of social media to reach some interesting conclusions about climate change and political beliefs. After analyzing the Twitter streams of U.S. senators, the scientists said Democrats were three times more likely than Republicans to follow research-oriented science organizations, including those covering global warming.

The paper, published in the journal Climate Change Responses, reinforces that fact that climate science has inexplicably become a partisan issue, but with a ray of hope. On the GOP side of the aisle, 15 senators displayed a draw to science and thus a way to bring scientific information to those not receiving it on their own.

“Increasingly, people are using Facebook and Twitter as a means of getting news, which determines what information they are exposed to,” said Brian Helmuth, a marine biologist and an ecologist at Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs.

Helmuth investigates the effects of climate change on marine organisms, aiming to provide policymakers with scientifically accurate forecasts to inform their decisions.

“Our study tells us which organizations and senators we should work with to get science-related findings into the hands of people who otherwise might not see them,” Helmuth said.

The research team said they set out to learn how to make their forecasts more accessible to policymakers.

The study sprang from the researchers’ desire to make their forecasts more accessible to policymakers.

“We used to make forecasts using quantitative methods and then put them out in the world,” says Helmuth. “The shift now is: Let’s start by learning what information end users actually want. What matters to them, and what common ground can we find to communicate our science in an effective way?

“Increasingly, people are using Facebook and Twitter as a means of getting news, which determines what information they are exposed to,” says Helmuth. A marine biologist and an ecologist, Helmuth investigates the effects of climate change on marine organisms, aiming to provide policymakers with scientifically accurate forecasts to inform their decisions.

“Our study tells us which organizations and senators we should work with to get science-related findings into the hands of people who otherwise might not see them,” says Helmuth.

“We used to make forecasts using quantitative methods and then put them out in the world,” he said. “The shift now is: Let’s start by learning what information end users actually want. What matters to them, and what common ground can we find to communicate our science in an effective way?”

The Twitter analysis covered  89 senators; 49 Republicans, 38 Democrats, and two Independents.The paper includes a list of the total number of Twitter accounts followed by each senator and the proportion of accounts categorized as “science.”

With social media analysis tools, the researchers sifted through about 79,000 Twitter accounts the senators followed and tracked how their science-related follows compared with their votes on amendments to the Keystone XL pipeline bill, including one regarding the role of human activity in causing climate change.

According to Helmuth, it was no surprise that the senators didn’t break out of the Twitterverse echo chamber realm. Republicans were found to bounce the same select information back and forth, and the Democrats were in left field, bouncing their own select information back and forth.

“The bias was so great that the two parties were seeing completely different worlds,” says Helmuth. “That leaves no basis for dialogue. They weren’t looking at, for instance, a report with the Republicans saying, ‘I interpret this report this way based on my political leanings,’ and the Democrats saying, ‘Well, I interpret it this way.’ The divisions have gotten so great that identifying as being ‘pro science’ or not now looks as if it’s part of party identity.”

Yet there’s good news, too, notes Helmuth. The researchers found it by correlating the senators’ Twitter follows with their pipeline amendment votes. There are champions of science in both parties, says Helmuth, “people we identified who are willing to cross party lines and to get information from both ends of the spectrum.”

Helmuth suggests that scientists target these “crossovers,” as well as apolitical “boundary organizations,” which straddle the science-policy divide, to help get their messages across. Focusing the conversation on issues everyone cares about, such as national defense and human health, opens doors, too.

“The science of climate change is not political. It’s based on objective facts,” said Helmuth. “It’s the solutions to climate change that are political. But you can’t force information down people’s throats, and oftentimes you can’t even influence positions with data. You need to concentrate on where people are starting from the stories that are relevant to them. Then you put what you’re trying to say in that context.”

The coauthors of the paper are Tarik Gouhier, assistant professor, and Steven Scyphers, associate research scientist, both in the Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences at Northeastern, and Jenn Mocarski, administrative assistant in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs.

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2 thoughts on “Twitter analysis tells volumes about climate politics

  1. “The science of climate change is not political. It’s based on objective facts,” said Helmuth.
    Well, he’s wrong. He’s ignoring the source of funding for the “scientists” who report what the liberals want to hear so that their funding will continue. It is VERY political indeed.

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