News Release

US congressional members struck a different tone along party lines in 8 months of COVID-19 social

Meaningful messaging: Sentiment in elite social media communication with the public on the COVID-19 pandemic

Peer-Reviewed Publication

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

An analysis of the tone used in pandemic-related social media posts from U.S. Congress members over an 8-month period in 2020 finds clear partisan differences, with Democrats using a slightly negative tone compared with Republicans, who appeared to use more strongly positive language in their COVID-19 messaging. Democrats were also far more likely than Republicans to use neutral language. The study also indicates that tone plays a critical role in elite communications, finding that the public engages more with content that has a negative tone. The study authors note that messaging from political elites during a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic holds a heightened significance for public health, information sharing, and personal behavior, with a message's tone either boosting public confidence in the provided information or fueling anxieties. Heightened political polarization can lead to fractured messaging around the issue. To investigate differences in the tone of pandemic-related social media messages from elite Democrat and Republican politicians, Janet Box-Steffensmeier and Laura Moses collected posts about COVID-19 generated by members of Congress between March 1 and October 30, 2020 using a public insights tool called CrowdTangle, which is owned and operated by Facebook. The researchers then used the VADER (Valence Aware Dictionary and sEntiment Reasoner) sentiment analysis tool to evaluate the tone of the messages. The findings revealed partisan differences in tone for pandemic-related messages, with Democrats far more likely to use neutral language than Republicans and employing a comparatively more negative tone, although both parties used a more positive tone overall. Democrats also posted about COVID-19 more than Republicans, averaging 26 posts per member compared to 18 during the study period. The findings also suggest that the more conservative a Congress member is, the more the public engaged with their social media content, although posts from liberal members were more likely to be shared.


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