Protocol | Policy

In Congress, social media habits are becoming as polarized as politics, according to a new report

The report found Democrats couldn't stop talking about Trump in 2020. For Republicans, the word Biden barely registered.

American flag with crack through middle

A new Pew report paints a picture of how Republicans and Democrats shape both their losses and their victories online.

Image: No-Mad/Getty Images

In the runup to the 2020 election, the one word Democrats in Congress used on social media more than any other was "Trump." As for Republicans? The name Biden didn't even make the top 10.

These findings come from a new report by the Pew Research Center that analyzed how members of Congress from different political parties used social media during the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. Their findings suggest that lawmakers' social media habits are becoming as polarized as their politics.

Pew researchers analyzed the Facebook and Twitter posts of Congress members during the 2016 and 2020 election cycles to see not only how their use of the platform changed over time, but also how their social media strategies diverged by party. By sorting these posts according to their most frequently used words and other distinctive characteristics, the Pew researchers paint a clear picture of how the two parties have sought to shape both their losses and their victories online.

The researchers looked at the words that were used most distinctively by each party, which is to say, the words that were used more by one party than the other at different times. After Biden won the 2020 election, for instance, Republican mentions of the words "recount," "fraud" and "irregularity" rose, compared to the period before the election. When Trump won in 2016, on the other hand, the most distinctly used phrase from Democrats was "President-elect Trump."

Pew's analysis of the words used by each party also revealed differences in their messaging. For Democrats, Pew found the most distinctive terms were ones that dealt with issues of equality, voting, COVID-19 and health care, while Republicans used the words "bless," "Israel," "defund" and "liberal" disproportionately. And while "health" and "COVID" were among the top 10 words used most frequently by Democratic lawmakers in 2020, for Republicans, those same terms ranked 46th and 18th respectively.

The words politicians used tell only part of the story. The links they share tell the other. The most recent election saw an increase in what the researchers call "'link polarization," which the researchers define as the proportion of links that are "shared primarily or exclusively by members of one party." In 2016, just over half of the links shared by lawmakers went to domains used "predominantly or exclusively by members of one party," and in 2020 this figure grew to 67%.

Some of those domains include party-specific fundraising sites or even candidates' own websites, but others include partisan news outlets like Breitbart and Newsmax. The research clearly illustrated just how much the news diets of politicians in different parties diverge, with the median Democratic legislator linking to 50 different domains during the 2020 election, and the median Republican sharing from just 19.

Even as politicians grew more polarized in terms of the links they shared between the 2016 and 2020 elections, however, a smaller percentage of posts contained links in 2020, compared to 2016. It's not that lawmakers were posting less. In fact, legislators posted on social media platforms more and with greater engagement during the 2020 election cycle than in 2016. They were just relying less on third-party sources.

Although Pew researchers didn't attribute this shift to any one phenomenon, one possibility is that between 2016 and 2020, lawmakers felt more inclined to use their own voices, rather than rely on news outlets or outside experts. If these trends persist, that could drive both political parties even farther into their own echo chambers – both online and off.

Photo Illustration: Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

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