Back in 2020, the killing of George Floyd while in police custody triggered one of the largest mobilizations in the US’ protest history – reflecting years of organizing by the Black Lives Matter movement. Social media networks were the backbone of the protest, helping activists to propagate their message and articulate their discourse. It was also one of the more polarizing events in recent US history, and it’s a good opportunity to study how social media amplifies some voices more than others.
Twitter is often seen as a liberal platform, with many conservatives complaining about their voices not being amplified enough. But a new study shows just the opposite. Researchers from the University of Padua and the University of North Carolina analyzed social media data around the 2020 summer protests and found Twitter gave larger visibility to politically conservative news than it did content with a liberal bent – suggesting the right had an advantage in gaining attention in social media back then.
“We were surprised,” Sandra González-Bailón, a researcher and one of the study authors, said in a media statement. “Previous work has documented that Twitter users tend to have a liberal bias. But we found that across the board, the news most often shared has a right-leaning bias. This increases the visibility of conservative voices.”
The role of Twitter
González-Bailón and the team of researchers had previously looked at the influence of bots on Twitter, verifying accounts during the 2017 fight for Catalan independence in Spain and the 2018 yellow vest protests in France. They found that for those political events verified media accounts had a more central role in circulating information.
Now, they decided to take things a step further. Instead of focusing on misinformation, the researchers turned to the stream of coverage happening in the US for the 20-day period between May 28, 2020 (three days after George Floyd died) and June 16, 2020. They looked at over 1.3 million tweets, protest events, and web browsing data.
The researchers wanted to compare the information circulating across Twitter to what was happening on the streets, hoping to identify the political angle of the news shared on platforms covering the protests. To do so, they inferred the ideological composition of the audiences consuming news, giving conservative or liberal labels to media outlets.
“Most of the sources being shared on Twitter as these events unfolded lead to right-leaning domains. You don’t have an equivalent on the left,” said González-Bailón. “And it’s not only about the number of messages containing URLs; that’s one measure we use. It’s also about engagement. Users reacted more frequently to right-leaning sources.”
The researchers said the findings give evidence to support the anecdotal claim that right-win voices dominate on social media, even amid movements with progressive goals such as Black Live Matter. They are now working to establish whether the same bias happens in other social media networks, also hoping to understand the why of it all.
González-Bailón believes this likely happens because of a combination of algorithms and social amplification, feeding off one another. In fact, last year Twitter admitted that it amplified more messages from rightwing politicians and news outlets than content from leftwing sources, suggesting it could eventually change its algorithm.
The study was published in the journal PNAS Nexus.