Brian Helmuth

Researchers mine Twitter to reveal Congress’ ideological divide on climate change

by Thea Singer

Does human activity drive global cli­mate change? For mem­bers of Con­gress, the answer often depends on party affil­i­a­tion. In gen­eral, Repub­li­cans say “nay,” Democ­rats “yea.”

A research team led by Brian Hel­muth—pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Sci­ence and the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs—wants to change that.

In a new paper pub­lished Monday in the journal Cli­mate Change Responses, Hel­muth and his North­eastern col­leagues ana­lyzed the Twitter accounts of U.S. sen­a­tors to see which leg­is­la­tors fol­lowed research-​​oriented sci­ence orga­ni­za­tions, including those cov­ering global warming. Democ­rats, they found, were three times more likely than Repub­li­cans to follow them, leading the researchers to note that “overt interest in sci­ence may now pri­marily be a ‘Demo­crat’ value.”

Yet out of that polit­ical polar­iza­tion, says Hel­muth, came a ray of hope: 15 Senate Repub­li­cans bridged the aisle, dis­playing a draw to sci­ence and thus a way to bring sci­en­tific infor­ma­tion to those not receiving it on their own.

Increas­ingly, people are using Face­book and Twitter as a means of get­ting news, which deter­mines what infor­ma­tion they are exposed to,” says Hel­muth. A marine biol­o­gist and an ecol­o­gist, Hel­muth inves­ti­gates the effects of cli­mate change on marine organ­isms, aiming to pro­vide pol­i­cy­makers with sci­en­tif­i­cally accu­rate fore­casts to inform their decisions.

Our study tells us which orga­ni­za­tions and sen­a­tors we should work with to get science-​​related find­ings into the hands of people who oth­er­wise might not see them,” says Helmuth.

Two dis­tinct ‘echo chambers’

The study sprang from the researchers’ desire to make their fore­casts more acces­sible to pol­i­cy­makers. The coau­thors of the paper are Tarik Gouhier, assis­tant pro­fessor, and Steven Scyphers, asso­ciate research sci­en­tist, both in the Depart­ment of Marine and Envi­ron­mental Sci­ences at North­eastern, and Jenn Mocarski, admin­is­tra­tive assis­tant in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs.

We used to make fore­casts using quan­ti­ta­tive methods and then put them out in the world,” says Hel­muth. “The shift now is: Let’s start by learning what infor­ma­tion end users actu­ally want. What mat­ters to them, and what common ground can we find to com­mu­ni­cate our sci­ence in an effec­tive way?”

They turned to Twitter to unearth the leg­is­la­tors’ inter­ests as well as the image each office pro­jected to the public: Was a par­tic­ular sen­ator “pro sci­ence” or not? All told, they eval­u­ated Twitter data from 89 senators—49 Repub­li­cans, 38 Democ­rats, and two Inde­pen­dents. In the paper they include a list of the total number of Twitter accounts fol­lowed by each sen­ator and the pro­por­tion of accounts cat­e­go­rized as “science.”

Using net­work analysis, they sifted through the nearly 79,000 Twitter accounts the sen­a­tors fol­lowed and tracked how their science-​​related fol­lows com­pared with their votes on amend­ments to the Key­stone XL pipeline bill, including one regarding the role of human activity in causing cli­mate change.

Not sur­pris­ingly, says Hel­muth, the Repub­lican and Demo­c­ratic sen­a­tors landed in two dis­tinct “echo cham­bers.” The Repub­li­cans were, let’s say, in right field, bouncing the same select infor­ma­tion back and forth, and the Democ­rats were in left field, bouncing their own select infor­ma­tion back and forth.

The bias was so great that the two par­ties were seeing com­pletely dif­ferent worlds,” says Hel­muth. “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.”

Seeking common ground

Yet there’s good news, too, notes Hel­muth. The researchers found it by cor­re­lating the sen­a­tors’ Twitter fol­lows with their pipeline amend­ment votes. There are cham­pions of sci­ence in both par­ties, says Hel­muth, “people we iden­ti­fied who are willing to cross party lines and to get infor­ma­tion from both ends of the spectrum.”

Hel­muth sug­gests that sci­en­tists target these “crossovers,” as well as apo­lit­ical “boundary orga­ni­za­tions,” which straddle the science-​​policy divide, to help get their mes­sages across. Focusing the con­ver­sa­tion on issues everyone cares about, such as national defense and human health, opens doors, too.

The sci­ence of cli­mate change is not political—it’s based on objec­tive facts,” says Hel­muth. “It’s the solu­tions to cli­mate change that are polit­ical. But you can’t force infor­ma­tion down people’s throats, and often­times you can’t even influ­ence posi­tions with data. You need to con­cen­trate on where people are starting from—the sto­ries that are rel­e­vant to them. Then you put what you’re trying to say in that context.”

Originally published in news@Northeastern on May 30, 2016.

College of Science