Protocol | Policy

Is Twitter good for democracy? The answer may depend on your politics.

Twitter is a news powerhouse. But two new Pew surveys find Democrats and Republicans are divided on whether that's a good thing or not.

Twitter HQ

Democrats are more than twice as likely to say Twitter is good for democracy than Republicans.

Photo: Bloomberg

Twitter has become a powerhouse in the news ecosystem, but Democrats and Republicans are deeply divided on whether that's actually a good thing, according to two new Pew Research reports.

The reports, published Monday, surveyed 2,548 U.S. adults during May of this year to find out about the behaviors and attitudes of Americans on Twitter. One of the reports analyzed Twitter users' experience on the platform generally, while the other took stock of how people use Twitter for news.

Together, they found that Democrats are more than twice as likely to say Twitter is good for democracy than Republicans. They're also more likely to trust what they see. According to the survey, while 74% of Democrats expressed some level of trust in the news they see on Twitter, just 52% of Republicans said the same. The reports also lend some credibility to the idea that Twitter is not real life: People who turn to Twitter for news, the survey found, are largely liberal.

Twitter's relationship with conservatives grew increasingly strained during the Trump presidency, despite the fact that Trump's 2016 campaign credited Twitter and Facebook with his victory. But conservative fears about alleged censorship on the platform came to a head in summer 2020 when Twitter began labeling tweets about mail-in ballots from then-President Trump with fact checks. Trump responded by introducing a rushed executive order attacking Section 230 in retaliation. The company further angered the right when it automatically blocked a New York Post article about Hunter Biden months later. The final blow, however, was Twitter's decision to ban Trump for life following the Jan. 6 insurrection, a decision praised by the left and condemned by the right.

That split is reflected in the Pew surveys. The survey focusing specifically on news consumers found that not only are Democrats and Republicans divided, but that even among Democrats, the more liberal a user is, the more they trust news on Twitter. Some 83% of self-described liberal Democrats said they trust Twitter news, compared to 59% of those who call themselves moderate or conservative Democrats. But this same disparity isn't present among Republicans, whose trust levels overall are lower and don't vary by ideology.

It may stand to reason then that Twitter news consumers are also divided about the site's impact on society. More than half of Republicans who view news on the site think it's bad for democracy, compared to just 26% of Democrats. In fact, most Democrats feel exactly the opposite, with 54% saying Twitter is actually good for democracy. This could be influenced by the fact that more Democrats found Twitter helped their understanding of current events and made them feel politically engaged than Republicans did.

In general, the survey found news consumers on Twitter are more likely to be young, educated and liberal than other users. About 77% of them are under 50, 46% of them have a bachelor's degree or more and 42% are liberal.

Despite their divided views of news on Twitter, however, the majority of Democrats and Republicans surveyed — more than half of respondents from both parties — agreed that inaccurate or misleading information is still a major problem on Twitter. And more than 90% of Twitter users said they had seen at least some inaccurate or misleading information on the platform.

The survey also analyzed the actual Twitter accounts of a subset of its respondents and found that, as with lots of social media platforms, the most active users produce the bulk of the posts. According to the survey, just a quarter of users produced 97% of all tweets between June 12 and Sept. 12 this year. These users tended to lean toward more political content and were twice as likely as other users to say they've experienced harassment on the platform. And yet, those prolific tweeters are also markedly less likely than other users to see incivility on Twitter as a problem.

That may be, but Twitter itself has been hard at work trying to promote "healthy" conversations among its users. The survey presents an undesirable, if unsurprising, finding for the company: that Twitter's most devoted users are also the most likely to get dragged to its dark side.

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