On the social media platform Twitter, users post messages of 140 characters or less. Those messages can include links to web pages or communications to other Twitter accounts using the @ (“at”) sign. When a # sign is placed in front of a word in a Twitter post, the word becomes a “hashtag” and that post is added to a stream of all other posts using the same hashtag. Direct mentions and replies build pair bonds in the Twitter environment; hashtags build community.
For years, people interested in discussing Maine politics have used the #MEPolitics hashtag to broadcast, to speak and to listen. As Election Day 2014 approaches, volume of chatter on the #MEPolitics hashtag has increased. Who’s speaking most? Who is speaking to whom (and who isn’t)? What’s being talked about? To find out, I’ve gathered all posts (popularly called “Tweets”) using the #MEPolitics hashtag over the last weekend: October 24-26, 2014. The following is a graph of the resulting social network, in which each unique contributor to #MEPolitics is represented by a dot, each tie indicates that one contributor has mentioned or replied to another contributor in a Tweet, and contributors are placed closest to those in the network with whom they tend to communicate most:
A few features of the #MEPolitics network are immediately apparent. First, nearly every one of the 603 participants in the #MEPolitics hashtag over the weekend is a communicator and not just a broadcaster; only 23 individuals posted Tweets during the period without referring to or being referred to in some way by another Twitter user (these are the loners colored light green in the lower-left of the graph). Second, most participants (565 out of 603 participants) are connected to one another either directly or indirectly in one giant conversation; the few unconnected conversations graphed in the lower-right corner are happening in small groups of 2 or 3. Third, the large conversation in which most Tweeters are participating is itself divided up into smaller clusters, in-groups whose members more frequently communicate with one another than with outsiders. These smaller clusters of conversation are color-coded in the graph above.
What’s going on inside those clusters of communication? To help clarify, I’ve depicted each Maine candidate for governor or federal office not as a simple dot, but rather using their profile picture. Also rendered by their profile images are the Twitter accounts of the Democratic Party and Republican Party of Maine. We can see from the graph that independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler and independent congressional candidate Richard Murphy are, not surprisingly, located in their own unique sub-community separated from the communities of discussion surrounding the major-party candidates. Perhaps more surprisingly, conversation involving Republican candidates is not embedded in a single Twitter community, but rather split among four sets. Indeed, both Senator Susan Collins and Governor Paul LePage have two Twitter accounts each, and each of their accounts is placed in its own commnunity. The Democratic Party and Democratic Party candidates, in contrast, are all located in the same sub-group of accounts. It is fair to say, at least in the context of Twitter communication and at least for this time period, that Maine Democrats have a more cohesive social media community than Maine Republicans.
A careful observer may notice the absence of one candidate and one party from this graph. Where is Republican congressional candidate Isaac Misiuk, for instance? Where is the Maine Green Independent Party, which is fielding a slate of 13 candidates in this cycle? The answer is that neither Misiuk nor the MGIP are included in the graph because neither participated in the #MEPolitics discussion, at least over the weekend.
Finally, there are some notable clusters of communication with non-party, non-candidate accounts at the center; these are indicated with a text label identifying the most central account of a cluster. M.E. McRider (BikinInMaine) is a conservative citizen (“Fighting the spread of the disease which is liberalism!“) who posted 130 provocative Tweets over the period, attracting 48 responses:
On the left, blogger Bruce Bourgoine posted 46 Tweets over the weekend, a smaller number than McRider, attracting 36 responses:
The Kennebec Journal (KJ_Online) and Bangor Daily News (bangordailynews) are two Maine newspapers sitting at the center of their own circles of conversation. The Portland Press Herald, another prominent Maine Newspaper, isn’t in its own independent Tweeting group; rather, its Tweets are referred to predominantly by Democratic candidates and their followers.
Of course, it’s not just the structure of the #MEPolitics network that matters; the content of discussion this weekend matters too. With Election Day just a week and a half away, what subjects in Maine politics are being talked about the most? The ten most-used hashtags in last weekend’s #MEPolitics discussion were:
Top Ten Hashtags
1. #mepolitics: 2542 uses
2. #michaud2014: 386 uses
3. #michaud: 354 uses
4. #lepage: 320 uses
5. #hillaryclinton: 302 uses
6. #mike: 288 uses
7. #eliotcutler: 278 uses
8. #cutler: 246 uses
9. #maine: 224 uses
10. #poll: 206 uses
The weekend visit by Hillary Clinton on behalf of Democratic candidates and the race for Governor appear to have garnered the highest volume of attention. This pattern is borne out in a listing of the ten most linked-to web pages in #MEPolitics Tweets:
Top Ten Page Links
1. Story: Paul LePage leads polls: 45 links
2. Story: Michaud does best one-on-one: 24 links
3. Story: Hillary Clinton endorses Mike Michaud: 22 links
4. Editorial: the Governor’s race will determine health outcomes of sick Mainers: 21 links
5. Story: A retrospective on Mike Michaud’s record in the U.S. Congress: 14 links
6. Story: poll on bear baiting: 13 links
7. Video: Eliot Cutler asks Mainers to vote for someone else if he can’t win: 11 links
8. Story: Eliot Cutler benefits from out-of-state money: 11 links
9. Another Story: Eliot Cutler benefits from out-of-state money: 10 links
10. Michaud Campaign TV Ad: Cutler supporters who will vote for Mike Michaud: 10 links
Remember bear baiting? Although there are many letters to the editor being published about this controversial referendum, relatively few Twitter users are discussing the possible ban over social media. The subject of a bear baiting ban garnered only one link in the top ten links of the weekend. All other stories have to do with the race for the Blaine House.
You may notice a trend toward citing newspaper articles in the top ten link list. Let’s look at the ten most linked-to domains for a deeper look:
Top Ten Domains
1. pressherald.com: 181 links
2. bangordailynews.com: 109 links
3. youtube.com: 93 links
4. michaud2014.com: 37 links
5. centralmaine.com (Kennebec Journal): 31 links
6. conventionofstates.com: 22 links
7. blogspot.com: 16 links
8. sunjournal.com: 16 links
9. huffingtonpost.com: 14 links
10. lepage2014.com: 14 links
Newspaper links are indeed the most popular, with the Portland Press Herald, the Bangor Daily News, the Kennebec Journal and the Lewiston Sun-Journal gaining spots in the top 10. Social media sites are also quite popular, with YouTube, Huffington Post and the blogging platform Blogspot representing the form. Campaign websites for Paul LePage and Mike Michaud make the list (notably, Eliot Cutler’s page does not). The final entrant in the top ten list of linked sources is the website conventionofstates.com, which proposes a new Constitutional Convention to amend the U.S. Constitution. Tweets mentioning this website consist almost entirely of posts made by M.E. McRider (handle @BikinInMaine) and responses to these posts.
McRider has made an impact this weekend in an otherwise election-centric week, and that impact is felt in discussion as well. Some Twitter users might elevate the salience of their favorite websites by simply posting a link again and again, a kind of anti-social behavior that some say borders on spamming. Yet McRider elicited responses as well, as evidenced by this last list of the ten most mentioned or replied-to accounts:
1. Mike Michaud (Democratic candidate for Governor)
2. Hillary Clinton
3. Eliot Cutler (Independent candidate for Governor)
4. Maine Democratic Party
5. Amy S. Fried, University of Maine political science professor and political columnist
6. Shenna Bellows (Democratic candidate for Senate)
7. M.E. McRider
8. Paul LePage (Republican candidate for Governor)
9. Bangor Daily News
10. Randy Billings, reporter for the Portland Press Herald
Last weekend, these were the speakers closest to the center of Maine political discussion on Twitter.
Methodological note: analysis and visualization was performed using NodeXL, a free and open-source plugin for Microsoft Excel that makes social media analysis accessible to almost anyone with a computer.