Summary: A new study delves into the tweet behavior of Congress members over the last decade.
Both Republican and Democratic politicians have shown an uptick in sharing their convictions and beliefs along with evidence-backed information. However, for Republicans, this increased expression of beliefs correlates with less reliable information sources.
The research comes from an international team that analyzed 3.8 million tweets using a unique AI-supported method.
The study evaluated 3.8 million tweets from Congress members between 2011 and 2022, noting an increase in opinion expression since Trump’s 2016 election.
Researchers employed a new AI-supported method to distinguish between “belief-speaking” (authentic conviction expression) and “fact-speaking” (evidence-based opinion).
Republican tweets showed a significant correlation between belief-speaking and links to poorly-rated information sources, suggesting a shift towards right-wing populism.
Source: Graz University of Technology
The international study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, analysed millions of tweets by members of Congress over the last decade.
Its findings showed both Republican and Democratic politicians were increasingly sharing their beliefs and opinions as well as evidence-based information.
However, among Republicans, their expression of honestly held beliefs and opinions was strongly linked to less trustworthy information sources.
Lead author Jana Lasser, a postdoctoral research fellow in computational social science at Graz University of Technology (TU Graz), said: “We wanted to find out what reasons and social changes contribute to people sharing untrustworthy information.”
3.8 million tweets from the last ten years
Data science and psychology experts from TU Graz in Austria, the University of Konstanz in Germany, and the University of Bristol in the UK, analysed 3.8 million tweets posted by Republican and Democratic members of Congress between 2011 and 2022. The findings showed that since Donald Trump’s election victory at the end of 2016, representatives of both political camps have increasingly expressed their opinions and convictions.
The researchers developed a unique method to recognise and measure the speech patterns of “belief-speaking,” which relies on authentic expression of a conviction irrespective of evidence or fact, and “fact-speaking,” which examines evidence and substantiates opinion with facts.
Novel AI-supported method
Supported by linguists and test subjects, the researchers compiled two dictionaries of terms associated with authentic opinion expression (belief-speaking) and fact-based information (fact-speaking). These dictionaries were computerised to include related terms and translated into numerical values, each representing a word in the context of the whole language.
“These numerical values can be used to calculate the distance of a word or an entire dictionary to all terms in the English language,” said Lasser.
This allowed the content of congressmen and congresswomen’s tweets to be rated, with each tweet receiving a belief-speaking pattern score and a fact-speaking score.
Co-author Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, Chair in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Bristol, said: “The distinction between fact-speaking and belief-speaking may explain why three-quarters of Republican voters considered Donald Trump to be honest, despite his extensive record of false and misleading statements.
“The key insight is that one aspect of honesty is sincere expression of one’s beliefs, no matter whether or not they are accurate. This is where Donald Trump scored highly because he always seemed to speak his mind and reported how he felt in the moment.”
To assess the quality of the information on the linked websites, the researchers used data from the renowned fact-checking organisation NewsGuard. NewsGuard has examined several thousand news sites since 2018 with regard to journalistic quality standards and ranked them on a scale from 0 (very untrustworthy) to 100 (very trustworthy).
Republicans: Clear correlation of belief-speaking and poorly rated sources
Using statistical models, the findings demonstrated a clear correlation between the language pattern of belief-speaking and the linking of poorly rated sources, such as low-quality news sites reporting poorly researched ‘facts,’ for Republican members of Congress.
“In spreading their opinions and beliefs on Twitter, the Republicans are moving more and more in the direction of right-wing populists,” added Lasser. “A few years ago, the quality of the linked websites was comparable to those shared by CDU MPs in Germany. Meanwhile, the level has sunk to that of the AfD.”
People might learn to recognize linguistic signals
But there may also be potential solutions that emerge from this research. Lewandowsky said: “Our analysis identified clear linguistic signals associated with the sharing of low-quality information. It follows that the public might learn to recognize these linguistic signals which would enable them to avoid being misled by that information.”
The findings build on previous research, which evidenced the increasing dissemination of untrustworthy information by Republican members of Congress.
From Alternative Conceptions of Honesty to Alternative Facts in Communications by U.S. Politicians
The spread of online misinformation on social media is increasingly perceived as a problem for societal cohesion and democracy.
The role of political leaders in this process has attracted less research attention, even though politicians who ‘speak their mind’ are perceived by segments of the public as authentic and honest even if their statements are unsupported by evidence.
By analysing communications by members of the US Congress on Twitter between 2011 and 2022, we show that politicians’ conception of honesty has undergone a distinct shift, with authentic belief speaking that may be decoupled from evidence becoming more prominent and more differentiated from explicitly evidence-based fact speaking.
We show that for Republicans—but not Democrats—an increase in belief speaking of 10% is associated with a decrease of 12.8 points of quality (NewsGuard scoring system) in the sources shared in a tweet. In contrast, an increase in fact-speaking language is associated with an increase in quality of sources for both parties.
Our study is observational and cannot support causal inferences. However, our results are consistent with the hypothesis that the current dissemination of misinformation in political discourse is linked to an alternative understanding of truth and honesty that emphasizes invocation of subjective belief at the expense of reliance on evidence.