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Tracking tweets to map networks of influence in Congress

Friday, 02/22/2019

The power of big data in areas like business analytics and advertising is well established and burgeoning, but a growing movement within data science is exploring applications that benefit society as a whole – not just a single company or client.

In recent years, new data competitions, fellowships and academic programs have sprung up with the intent to pursue Data Science for Social Good (DSSG).

More than 100 researchers at the University of Michigan, in fields ranging from public health and biostatistics to social work and education, gathered this month to share their work in this area at the second-annual Data for Public Good Symposium.

Networks of Influence

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Employing theories and tools from graph theory, a research team from the School of Information and Ross School of Business evaluated the relationships between U.S. members of Congress and the people they retweeted on Twitter.

Using data from 2017, the group analyzed retweets by Congress members, building in measures that detect Twitter accounts’ influence on each other’s relationships and behaviors.

The study discovered two non-overlapping communities of Congress members retweeting each other that nearly precisely map on to partisan divisions in Congress (i.e., one community is comprised principally of Democrats and the other of Republicans). With a contemporary dataset, this work tests and validates previous studies that found similar partisan communities with political blogosphere data.

Using natural language processing techniques, the research group also found the non-Congressional accounts that members of Congress most often retweeted fall principally into the categories of local news organizations, local public service organizations and law enforcement. Each of these groups, researchers said, may tell us something about narrative influence on members of Congress’ public personae, or how members use Twitter to craft aspects of their public personae.

Such findings are important to consider, researchers said, in today’s political climate, in which questions about the way our democracy functions and who has power to shape political discourse are vital.

Project Title: Understanding Networks of Influence on U.S. Congressional Members’ Public Personae on Twitter

Research Team: Angela Schöpke, School of Information; Chris Bredernitz, School of Information; Caroline Hodge, Ross School of Business and School of Information

Faculty Support: Ceren Budak, School of Information; Libby Hemphill, School of Information

- Dan Meisler, Communications Manager, U-M Office of Research