Getty Images

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. ThisĀ tendencyĀ makes Twitter a fun placeĀ to engage in conversation with like-minded individuals, butĀ not such a great forumĀ forĀ real debate. Which is mostly fine, unless you're an anti-science lawmaker who uses the platform to ignore climate change factsĀ and reinforce pseudo-scientific concepts.

According to a paperĀ titled, "Trust, tribalism and tweets: has political polarization made science a 'wedge issue'?" published in the journalĀ 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."

Climate Change Responses


Lead researcher Brian Helmuth, ofĀ Northeastern University, and his team combed through the 78,753 Twitter accounts followed by the handles of 89 currentĀ senatorsā€”49 RepubĀ­liĀ­cans, 38 DemocĀ­rats andĀ 2 indeĀ­penĀ­dentsā€”in February of 2015 (private accounts were excluded, as was Senator Al Franken's because he "followed such a large number of accountsā€¦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 likelyĀ 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."

Climate Change Responses


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 diaĀ­logue. They werenā€™t looking at, for instance, a report with the RepubĀ­liĀ­cans saying, ā€˜I interĀ­pret this report this way based on my politĀ­ical leanĀ­ings,ā€™ and the DemocĀ­rats saying, ā€˜Well, I interĀ­pret it this way.ā€™ The diviĀ­sions have gotten so great that idenĀ­tiĀ­fying as being ā€˜pro sciĀ­enceā€™ or not now looks as if itā€™s part of party identity.ā€

According to Scientific American, more Republican leaders believe in human-caused climate changeĀ now than they did even two years ago.


But for public figures, the authors argue, Twitter is a way to signal interest to constituents.Ā "The Twitter handles that a user follows serveā€¦ 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 thatĀ 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 identifyingĀ how our lawmakers behave on Twitter.Ā The researchers found a "significant positive relationship" between how senators voted on amendments to theĀ proposed amendments to the Keystone XL pipeline bill and theirĀ 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 findingsĀ can help scientists figure out what kind of research is sought after by the public.Ā "Letā€™s start by learning what inforĀ­maĀ­tion end users actually want," he said, adding "what matĀ­ters to them, and what common ground can we find to comĀ­muĀ­niĀ­cate our sciĀ­ence in an effecĀ­tiveĀ way?ā€


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.