Visualizing Political Polarization on Twitter

Fernand Pajot @fernandp email

March 13th 2017

One way to interpret the current political polarization in the US is that two groups of people are not listening to each other. Twitter is useful because it allows us to look at who is following whom, so if two public figures have a lot of followers in common compared to their total amount of followers you could qualify them as close. Conversely if the two figures have less common followers, the two groups of people interested in what they have to say have less in common.

What would it look like if you grouped pundits and popular figures on twitter—while excluding most politicians—according to this metric? The visualizations below provide some insight into the current state of political polarization in the US, as well as how to address it.

You can find more details here on the specifics around how the data was gathered and visualized.

Each black dot is a twitter user who has between 20,000 and 300,000 followers. Most of them are pundits/columnists or popular political twitter accounts. The users which are close to each other have a lot of followers in common. Users which don't have many followers in common are far away from each other. Two big groups emerge. That means that most of the people following these users on twitter usually don't follow many people from the other group. We are seeing two universes of getting their news and communicating mostly separately from each other, with very few people bridging them.

As most of these users are pundits or columnists, we can learn more about where media outlets fall within these groups.

Feel free to explore the visualization yourself here. You might have to refresh the page twice. A laptop or desktop is strongly recommended. You can hover on the dots to identify the twitter user and which affiliated news outlet I've (sometimes incorrectly) inferred. There's a search functionality to help you find twitter users. Double click on any dot to highlight its closest peers.

The bottom group mostly contains outlets like the New York Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC, CNN, Politico, and the Atlantic. Outlets like Vox or the Huffington Post blend fairly well with them, but tend to be slightly lower down. Going more towards the top of the bottom group you'll find columnists from the Wall Street Journal, and you'll also start seeing some Fox News and Washington Examiner affiliations.

The prominent media outlets mostly present in the top group are the Washington Examiner, Fox News, the National Review, the New York Post, and Breitbart. It also has many smaller news outlets.

A good hypothesis and understanding of what's going on at this point is that the top group mostly includes conservatives. We can verify this by drawing red dots for users who have the word "conservative" in their profile description. Every single red dot falls indeed in the top group, or at the border of the two groups.

Self-identified Conservatives

While trying to better understand who is in between the two main groups I've noticed that they often seem closest to neoconservatism. Wikipedia provides a list of a few popular figures. Here's where they fall in our visualization. The one at the very bottom is David Frum.


It's interesting to dig deeper in the group of conservatives. The further you go up, the more explicit support for Trump is. Note however that most of the lower part of that group were staunch #NeverTrump supporters (such as @EWErickson) and frequently criticize him.


What Should We Do?

It's easy to predict what each fervent member of either group would say. Someone from the bottom group would say that traditional conservatives have lost touch with everyone else. A member of the top group would be outraged that so many mainstream media outlets have shifted to the left and no longer provide a voice for traditional conservatism. Both interpretations are true.

Over the past few months I've been following people ranging from the middle of the top group to the middle of the bottom group. This diverse set of people have been more useful for adding color to current events than any aggregation of media outlets or than my highly polarized Facebook feed. Countless times these users from both groups have helped identify double standards, challenged many beliefs I took for granted, and always drew me to a picture and understanding of the world which was so hard to achieve before.

Most things in our digital lives try to reinforce your own beliefs. Social media websites filter out information which challenges us because we're less likely to interact with it. It's so easy to feel that you, and everyone around you, are so right, and that everyone else is so wrong. And there are very few ways out. Literally every single product, feature, and interaction is optimized with the side-effect of keeping you in. Every now and then you might have the desire to try to pull your head out of your own bubble, so you read well-known websites which you'll expect to disagree with. But you'll go too far away from your comfort zone, and you'll be overwhelmed by how alien these opinions or points of references are. And even newspapers full of diverse columnists with diverse opinions get squashed to a few catchy, usually highly polarizing headlines written to optimize clicks and shares.

We have to do better. We have to identify who can help us bridge ideological divides. If you're a highly progressive liberal try working your way up and finding the boundary of people who are just beyond your comfort zone. If you're coming from the top group try working your other way around. And then keep pushing these boundaries.