Twitter isn't a great way to expose yourself to new ideas.
As anyone who uses the microblogging platform knows, it's much easier (and more pleasant) to follow people you agree with, and block or ignore those with differing beliefs. This tendency makes Twitter a fun place to engage in conversation with like-minded individuals, but not such a great forum for real debate. Which is mostly fine, unless you're an anti-science lawmaker who uses the platform to ignore climate change facts and reinforce pseudo-scientific concepts.
According to a paper titled, "Trust, tribalism and tweets: has political polarization made science a 'wedge issue'?" published in the journal Climate Change Responses on Monday, many Republican senators are doing just that.
In the paper's abstract, the authors explain why we should pay attention to who lawmakers follow on Twitter. "Political polarization remains a major obstacle to national action on global climate change in the United States Congress," the authors explain, adding, "social media outlets such as Twitter have become a popular means of exchanging information and of portraying a carefully crafted public image."
Lead researcher Brian Helmuth, of Northeastern University, and his team combed through the 78,753 Twitter accounts followed by the handles of 89 current senators—49 Republicans, 38 Democrats and 2 independents—in February of 2015 (private accounts were excluded, as was Senator Al Franken's because he "followed such a large number of accounts…that this account was deemed an unreliable indicator of interests.") They tabulated who followed "Twitter accounts representing professional scientific organizations and federal science agencies that include science as a large part of their mandate." They found that senators generally don't follow these types of accounts, but that Democrats were three time more likely to follow science-related accounts than their Republican counterparts.
Or, in the authors words, "Our results strongly suggest that overt interest in science may now primarily be a 'Democrat' value."
On the Democratic side, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, and Senator Patty Murray of Washington state followed the most science-related accounts. The Republican senators who followed the most science-related accounts were Dean Heller of Nevada, Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Jerry Moran of Kansas.
"The bias was so great that the two parties were seeing completely different worlds," Helmuth said in a statement, adding "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.”
According to Scientific American, more Republican leaders believe in human-caused climate change now than they did even two years ago.
But for public figures, the authors argue, Twitter is a way to signal interest to constituents. "The Twitter handles that a user follows serve… are arguably an objective reflection of the public image a user wishes to portray," the authors write. So the fact that Republican lawmakers don't follow scientific accounts could mean both that they may not be privy to the type of science news their Democratic peers are, and that they don't want their constituents to think they care about that news at all.
There are practical implications to identifying how our lawmakers behave on Twitter. The researchers found a "significant positive relationship" between how senators voted on amendments to the proposed amendments to the Keystone XL pipeline bill and their social media habits: Those who followed science-related accounts were more likely to support amendments that recognized climate change as human-driven.
Helmuth suggests that his team's findings can help scientists figure out what kind of research is sought after by the public. "Let’s start by learning what information end users actually want," he said, adding "what matters to them, and what common ground can we find to communicate our science in an effective way?”
Plus, the research helps pinpoint which Republican lawmakers are most comfortable publicly identifying as pro-science, and the most likely allies in fighting climate change.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.