It’s no secret that politically active Twitter users punch well above their weight. The most prolific political tweeters provide politicians and members of the press with an instantaneous and, therefore, valuable feedback mechanism. In exchange, they are granted disproportionate influence over the national political agenda. Study after study has shown how much clout Twitter wields over the national political environment. Books have been written about the ways in which “Twitter is changing newsroom cultures and practices” and about the “concept of social capital and agenda setting.” But fewer efforts have been made to both qualify and quantify precisely what “Twitter,” in this context, is. Who are these powerful tweeters? What are their politics, and how do they behave online? The Pew Research Center has shed some light on who is driving the national dialogue, and it’s not a pretty picture.
From June 2018 to June 2019, Pew studied more than 1 million tweets produced by a select group of adults who constitute a representative sample of the 22 percent of American adults with active public Twitter accounts. To determine what constitutes a political tweet, Pew limited its focus to online messages that involved discussions around national political issues or parties, ideological groups and institutions, or explicitly political behaviors like voting or directly engaging with a politician (though that engagement doesn’t need to be explicitly political in nature). Given that criteria, Pew found that “prolific political tweeters” make up just 6 percent of the population of active users on the website, but they generate 20 percent of all tweets and 73 percent of tweets with political themes. All told, while only 13 percent of the tweets Pew studied could be considered political in nature, a staggering 97 percent of those were composed by just 10 percent of active users.