What can you tell about a politician from his or her Twitter feed? It can tell us who likes using emoji, or what football team a pollie supports, but new research has found that tweets can also show us how politically left or right leaning our politicians are.

As part of wider analysis to find how polarised Australian politics has become, Professor Thad Kousser, Fulbright Distinguished Chair at Flinders University, has analysed 50,186 tweets from lower house MPs to find that the overlap in politicians’ views is actually greater than it sometimes seems. Kousser used the tweets because Twitter is unfiltered. “You need something where candidates or legislators put themselves on the public record where they’re not being filtered by either their party or by the media,” he told Crikey. “If you look at votes on the floor of the house there’s so much pressure, and your career is over if you don’t toe the party line.”

The study covered 110 of 150 MPs who started Twitter accounts before October last year, mapping them against tweets from official party accounts and their colleagues. His research showed Labor MPs are more likely to tweet than Coalition MPs and that the age of politicians greatly influenced how they used the social media, with younger pollies using the medium as a conversation and their older counterparts more likely to see the medium as an extension of their press releases.

Members of Kousser’s team coded 2500 tweets as left or right leaning, and from there a computer program was able to code the rest into left or right leaning or no ideological direction. Key words that came up often in right-leaning tweets included “stop the boats”, “carbon tax”, “red tape” and more of a focus on jobs and business. Words like “cuts”, “rights” and “#debtsentence” came up often in left-leaning tweets. Predictably, Labor MPs tweeted more to the left, and Liberals more to the right, but the concentration and spread of the tweets varies.

There are some surprises when it comes to whose tweets were the most left or right leaning. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop registered as one of the least right-leaning of the Liberal Party, with just 24% of her tweets coded as right leaning. Kousser says her penchant for emoji don’t show any ideology, but that her portfolio matters could be responsible for the results. “She’s talking a lot about human rights, international engagement and gender equality.”

While the official Liberal Party account’s tweets are right-leaning 95% of the time, the MP with the highest level of right-leaning tweets is Christopher Pyne with 90%. Tony Abbott comes in at 66%, Malcolm Turnbull at 56% and Joe Hockey at 57%. While the ALP’s official Twitter account registered only 1% of right-leaning tweets, individual MPs also showed shades of grey in their tweets. Mark Butler and Tanya Plibersek were the most left leaning, with only 10% and 12% right-leaning tweets respectively. Chris Bowen and Richard Marles were the most right-leaning of the ALP, with 34% and 32% tweets coded as right leaning. Kousser said the study did throw up some surprises, with Labor Leader Bill Shorten recorded as one of the most-left leaning members of the ALP, with just 7% right-leaning tweets. Anthony Albanese however registered 25% right-leaning tweets. Barnaby Joyce also shows up as a closet lefty on Twitter, with just 29% of his tweets registered as right-leaning.

The research shows our politicians may have more in common across party lines than we often think. “There is a middle ground occupied by politicians in Australia, that middle ground has been gone from Washington DC for decades but it’s there in Canberra,” Kousser said.

Overall though, the vast majority of tweets from politicians don’t show any ideological tendency, with 70% of the tweets analysed as non ideological, 17% as left leaning and 12% as right leaning, but there is still a lot to learn from tweets, mapping the ideology of factions and “cross-over” members.

The research also shows that politicians’ tweeting styles can be affected by where they are in an election cycle, with Tony Abbott’s tweets becoming less right-leaning in the year before the 2013 election. Tweets like “Good discussion with multicultural media today. Our New Colombo Plan and govt’s attack on skilled migrants key issues” are coded as left-leaning.

Kousser said it was also interesting to learn that in Australia, all politicians handled their Twitter accounts themselves, instead of leaving it to staffers, which is often the case in the US, “because Australian politicians do want that immediate connection they are by and large doing it themselves”.

While Kousser says the research is useful at finding the middle ground within Australian politics, it does have its limits. One politician interviewed as part of the research told him “only a fuckwit would say what he really thinks on Twitter”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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