Analyzing the tweets of Republicans and Democrats

Analyzing the tweets of Republicans and Democrats
Dora Demszky. Credit: Csenge Török

New Stanford linguistics research has analyzed how Republicans and Democrats use different language when discussing mass shootings on social media and found that Republicans talk more about the shooter and Democrats focus more on the victims.

Focusing on posts shared on the social media platform Twitter, the researchers found that Republicans tended to concentrate on breaking news reports and on event-specific facts in their tweets while Democrats centered on discussing potential policy changes, according to the new study, presented at a computational linguistics conference in June.

"We live in a very polarized time," said the study's co-author Dan Jurafsky, professor of linguistics and of computer science. "Understanding what different groups of people say and why is the first step in determining how we can help bring people together. This research can also help us figure out how polarization spreads and how it changes over time."

Researchers examined 4.4 million tweets posted in response to 21 different mass shooting events, including the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016, to determine what words and emotions people with different political leanings expressed.

They found that Republicans were more likely to express fear and disgust in their tweets than Democrats, who were more likely to communicate sadness and calls for action. Republicans were also 25 percent more likely than Democrats to write "terrorist" in tweets about the shootings in which the shooter was African American, Hispanic or Middle Eastern. Democrats were 25 percent more likely to use the same word when they tweeted about shootings in which the shooter was white.

Studying tweets

Researchers launched the study because they had three main questions: What is different about how Democrats and Republicans talk on Twitter? Could Republicans or Democrats be identified based on particular words they use in their tweets? How could these differences help understand the causes and consequences of social media polarization?

To answer those questions, researchers used a method developed by Stanford economist Matthew Gentzkow together with Brown University economist Jesse Shapiro, who are co-authors on the new study, and economist Matt Taddy. The method determines the degree of polarization in speech, and it was used in previous research that examined the speech of members of Congress.

The researchers applied the method and a language processing framework they created to a database of 4.4 million tweets about 21 mass shooting events that happened between 2015 and 2018. The researchers excluded retweets, and they determined whether a Twitter user was a Republican or Democrat by analyzing if they followed more Republican or Democratic politicians' accounts.

Researchers chose to focus on responses to because "they are events with objective facts, the meanings of which people twist in different ways," said Dora Demszky, the lead author on the study and a Stanford linguistics graduate student. The interdisciplinary team of co-authors also includes James Zou, assistant professor of biomedical data science, linguistics graduate student Rob Voigt and electrical engineering graduate student Nikhil Garg.

Researchers found that when people mentioned an earlier shooting as a way to contextualize the new shooting, Democrats were 2.7 times more likely than Republicans to mention a previous school shooting, most often the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. But Republicans were 2.5 times more likely to mention an event of mass violence that involved a perpetrator who was a person of color, which most often involved a mention of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Researchers saw that the degree of polarization in the tweets increased over time in the hours and days following the events. For the three events where there was sufficient long-term data to draw conclusions, polarization plateaued usually after about three to four days, Demszky said.

"Ideological polarization happens very fast," Demszky said. "As soon as an event like a mass happens, people react very differently right away. This research gives a large-scale insight into how polarization works linguistically."

Among other findings, researchers found that Democrats were more likely than Republicans to use phrases like "need to," "should," "have to" and "must" as part of their calls for political action.

The research study also confirms previous research showing the relationship between people's beliefs, personalities and worldviews. The new study reveals that different emotions are expressed by people with different political leanings.

Limitations and further research

While some of the difference in speech patterns between Republicans and Democrats may be intuitive, the new study is one of the first to quantify polarization of language on social media in the hours and days after major events, Jurafsky and Demszky said.

"In order to think about how we could fix the echo chambers that creates, we need data on how polarization happens," Demszky said.

Further research is needed to understand the linguistic differences among Republicans and Democrats.

One limitation of the new study is that researchers categorized each Twitter user they analyzed as either Republican or Democrat rather than locating them along an ideological spectrum.

Demszky said she hopes that talking about language bias could be helpful in and of itself.

"It's easy to not reflect on the words you use daily," Demszky said. "But I think it's a good step forward if people are just aware of their own biases."

Explore further

Why mass shootings don't lead to gun control

More information: Analyzing Polarization in Social Media: Method and Application to Tweets on 21 Mass Shootings. arXiv:1904.01596 [cs.CL]
Citation: Analyzing the tweets of Republicans and Democrats (2019, June 25) retrieved 23 July 2019 from
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User comments

Jun 25, 2019
This article takes great pains in trying to divide our country instead of uniting it. The author focuses on our difference and ignores Shakespeare's "If you prick me do I not bleed". This free speech because of the way it focuses on our differences should be considered HATE speech.

Jun 25, 2019
Republicans are racist, there is so much evidence. And they do not perceive racism as a problem, of course, they are the descendants of slave owners, they are not critical of the roots of their privilege. Usually when one says that someone is racist and a republican is present, he at least would go "oh, but you can not blame them for that".... oh, no, we celebrate hatred, segregation, poverty, oppression: long live the dumbest rich white trash like ronald reagan or trump.

Jun 25, 2019
Republicans are racist,

mqr, you personally sir are a hate monger. You are someone that wants to tear our great country apart by using hate speech and generalizations against a group of people who just have different views than you.
You think by labeling them and demonizing them you make them less human and a group of people to be hated, despised and persecuted. How do you think what you are doing is any different that what nazis did to their enemies in the beginning of www2?

Amd mqr has shown that my assessment of this article is correct. It brings out the hate mongers among us.

Jun 25, 2019
Guns don't kill people any more than spoons make people fat. THAT'S why conservatives focus on those committing the criminal acts.

Jun 25, 2019
Well why isn't the shooters political views stated as a contributing factor? Because in most cases the mass shooting is not politically motivated, there for of no consequence..

Jun 26, 2019
they are events with objective facts

Except for the fact that the very term "mass shooting" is defined subjectively. One side is trying to draw the definition so any old gunfight with more than one victim qualifies as a "mass shooting", while there exists no official definition.

The point is to inflate the number of these events in the statistics, so you could then point to it and say "Look here's a problem! Vote for me and I'll fix it."

Jun 26, 2019
The point is to inflate the number of these events in the statistics, so you could then point to it and say "Look here's a problem! Vote for me and I'll fix it."

You hit the nail on the head. But there are other people with a lot of power or influence that really think they are crusaders for a just cause that want to ban guns. Trouble is they don't just state their views, they use propaganda of any type to try to force their views on everyone.

Jun 26, 2019
The ammosexuals will try to use anything. Including victims of mass shootings.


Jun 26, 2019
The ammosexuals will try to use anything. Including victims of mass shootings.


Using the victims for political gain is the preserve of the people with the opposite agenda.

The issue here is, that the point and purpose of the state is really not saving people from themselves - especially not by removing their fundamental liberties. The state assuming the powers to act as the vanguard of the people slowly turns into tyranny, because any good that the state can do is inevitably replaced by corruption. Power corrupts.

This is a matter where the number of gun murders rather reflects the poor state of society - it's a symptom of something else - and getting people to stop killing each other by banning guns won't work. It's something else you need to fix instead:

"That rifle on the wall of the labourer's cottage or working class flat is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there."

-George Orwell

Jun 26, 2019
The point of the Orwell quote above is that when democracy is functioning correctly and the society is in a good shape, the rifle stays on the wall because there's no need to use it.

When the people are suffering because the society is in an ill shape, criminality increases and people start shooting people. Eventually when things get really bad, they start pointing the guns at the ruling elites, which is exactly the point why the people who want to become the ruling elites are pretending to care about things like mass-shooting victims.

These "problem solvers" (moral entrepreneurs) don't actually want to solve the problems that cause people to shoot people - they just want to control the amount of guns so people would shoot somewhat fewer people. That way, by "managing" the problem they can argue for their sustained stay in power, like a doctor who prescribes you heroin for your cough instead of antibiotics to clear up the infection, so you'd keep coming back.

Jun 26, 2019
But here's the poverty of the argument of caring for the victims:

Suppose there's two nations, A and B. Suppose we live in nation A and observe that 10,000 people get killed every year, while in nation B only 5,000 people get killed - half as many. So we say, "How horrible, we have twice the gun murder rate, so we should restrict guns!"

But what if we didn't have? Would the argument be any different?

If you care for the victims, it would not. Even if the rate was less, you'd say "Still so many people are getting murdered by guns, so we should restrict guns!", all the way to just banning all guns.

If on the other hand, at some point you said, "Okay, we're at 4,000 and they're at 5,000. this is a tolerable situation and we can keep the rest of the guns.", that would reveal your duplicity. You didn't care about the victims after all - only about looking good according to some arbitrary metric.

Appealing to care, you're either being unreasonable, or arguing in bad faith.

Jun 26, 2019
And the thing about appeals to emotion is, if someone does not feel that way, then they simply don't and there's very little you can do to convince them otherwise.

Why should they care?

After all, if you have to point a proverbial gun at all the people who don't share your sentiments, in order to get them to follow along with your plans, what exactly have you gained? You've "saved" the people by subjugating them: trading one problem they didn't even consider to be a problem, to a problem they surely do. If the people have to be forced for "their own good", you're not actually doing them any favors.

"Please let me help you!", said the monkey dragging a fish up a tree, "So you wouldn't drown!".

Jun 26, 2019
Right, so you gonna pay your taxes for schools now @Eikka?

Jun 28, 2019
Right, so you gonna pay your taxes for schools now @Eikka?

I'm not quite sure what that's supposed to mean in this context.

The point here is, if you claim to "care" about the victims of mass shootings, you're either making an argument where nobody should be shot, which is impossible to attain and unreasonable to attempt, or you're applying an arbitrary standard over how many people being killed by guns is tolerable.

In the end, it isn't about the number of people getting shot - that isn't the issue. The issue is why people shoot people in the first place. If by nature, then what can you do? Eugenics? If by nurture, then taking away the weapons doesn't really help. It just makes the "mass shootings" statistic look nicer. If by circumstances, then shouldn't you also be looking at the why instead of how?

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