In addition to surveying users about their experiences on Twitter, researchers from the Center also examined the actual on-site behaviors of a subset of users from this representative panel of U.S. adults who provided their Twitter handles for research purposes. This analysis involved two separate data collections and analyses.
First, researchers collected every public tweet posted by these users between May 1, 2020, and May 31, 2021. In total, this collection resulted in a total of 959,254 tweets (of any kind) from 942 users. Researchers then used a custom-trained machine learning classifier to estimate which of those nearly 1 million tweets were related to political content, such as officials and activists, social issues, or news and current events.
Second, researchers collected profile information for all of the accounts followed by our panel and then manually categorized a sample of all the accounts followed by these users (2,859 accounts in total) as well as every account followed by 20 or more users (1,256 in total) into different account types.
One-third of posts from U.S. adults are estimated to be about politics
This analysis finds that a sizable share of the content posted by U.S. adult Twitter users is broadly political in nature. Of the nearly 1 million tweets examined in this analysis, 33% are estimated to include some form of political content. It also finds that political posting is fairly widespread across the Twitter population, as 65% of U.S. adults on Twitter posted or retweeted at least once about politics over the year under observation.
At the same time, political posting is an infrequent practice for most users. The typical (median) U.S. adult Twitter user posted just three posts containing political content over the course of the year – or approximately one political tweet every four months.
This seeming contradiction – that a majority of American Twitter users have tweeted about politics, and political content makes up one-third of all tweets from this group, but most users only tweet about politics occasionally – is explained by the fact that most Americans on Twitter tweet rarely, if ever, about any topic.
Conversely, a relatively small share of users tweet quite frequently. And as is the case of tweeting behavior more broadly, a minority of U.S. adult Twitter users produce the vast majority of political tweets. The Center’s analysis finds that a quarter of U.S. adults on Twitter produce 99% of all political tweets from this group.
Certain groups make an outsize contribution to the political discussion on Twitter
In the same way that a relatively small share of users produce a majority of political tweets from U.S. adults, certain demographic groups produce a larger share of political content on Twitter than others. Groups such as college graduates, Democrats and Democratic leaners, those ages 50 and older, and women each produce 70% or more of all tweets from U.S. adults mentioning politics or political issues.
In several cases, these groups that produce a majority of political tweets make up a large share of the U.S. adult Twitter population. For instance, the population of U.S. adults on Twitter contains a larger share of Democrats than Republicans. As a result, Democrats produce a larger share of political tweets than Republicans – even though political content makes up a comparable share of the tweets posted by a typical Democrat and a typical Republican.
In other cases, these groups simply produce a large number of tweets about any topic, whether those tweets are political or not. For instance, previous research from the Center has found that two-thirds of the most active tweeters among U.S. adults are women.
But neither of these is the case for those ages 50 and older, who contribute 78% of all political tweets from U.S. adults. These older users make up around one-quarter of all U.S. adult Twitter users, and produce roughly half (55%) of all tweets. But at the level of the average user, older adults are much more likely to tweet about politics than their younger counterparts. Political content makes up 36% of all tweets from the typical (median) U.S. adult Twitter user age 50 and older. That is roughly five times the share for the median 18- to 49-year-old, whose tweets are composed of just 7% political content.
Characteristics of the most active political tweeters
The most active political tweeters – defined in this analysis as those who posted more than 10 political tweets during the yearlong study period2 – are largely similar to other Twitter users in many of their basic demographic characteristics, such as educational attainment or party affiliation. However, there are prominent differences related to age: highly active political tweeters contain a larger share of users ages 50 and older (34%) compared with those who tweet less about politics (23%).
These highly active political tweeters are more likely than other U.S. adults on Twitter to participate in a variety of political and civic activities at higher rates, both on Twitter and offline. Compared with those who
tweet less about politics, a larger share say they have contributed financially to a political campaign or cause (46% vs. 21%) or have volunteered for a campaign or cause (20% vs. 8%). Additionally, larger shares say they primarily use Twitter to express their opinions, discuss politics with others at least weekly, or get news on Twitter.
At the same time, higher- and lower-volume political tweeters do not differ when it comes to some views about Twitter as a vehicle for political engagement. Similar shares of each group say Twitter is mostly a good thing for American democracy, or that the platform is at least somewhat effective at raising public awareness of political and social issues. And those who tweet about politics the most are actually less likely to think that Twitter is at least somewhat effective at changing people’s minds about political or social issues: 34% say this, compared with half (50%) of those who tweet less about politics.
Politicians and government figures are rare among all accounts followed by U.S. adults on Twitter, but much more common among the most-followed accounts
Twitter users follow a vast array of accounts: The 899 users in this sample collectively followed 502,475 accounts at the time of analysis.3 Very few of these accounts belong to people or entities directly related to politics or news media. Just 1% of these accounts belong to politicians, government figures or public offices, an identical share belong to policy or advocacy organizations, and another 3% belong to media outlets or journalists. Of the four categories researchers coded for this analysis, the largest share of accounts (26%) belong to the entertainment category.
But the bulk of these accounts (69%) belong to none of the categories coded by the Center. These accounts encompass a wide range of personal and professional affiliations and often defy easy categorization. But they generally are followed by a relatively small number of other accounts, and few are verified by Twitter.
However, political figures make up a much larger share of the accounts followed by large numbers of U.S. adult Twitter users. Among accounts followed by at least 20 Twitter users in our sample, 20% are governmental or political in nature accounts and another 25% are media outlets or journalists. These popular accounts also contain a larger share of policy or advocacy groups (6%) than the broader sample of accounts. As is true of accounts as a whole, entertainment is the most common category – accounting 36% of this group. But just 13% of accounts in this group do not fall into one of these four categories.