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You might not be a journalist, but you play one on Twitter

Researchers at Indiana University are examining how politically engaged Twitter users display journalistic behaviors and how they shape the site as a news source.

Though it might only come in 140-character bursts, everyone’s a publisher on Twitter. But how many of those publishers are journalists, or acting like journalists — and how does that affect what kind of information ends up getting passed around?

A study in the works at Indiana University aims to examine the extent to which Twitter users behave like journalists, even if they aren’t journalists in the traditional professional sense. Specifically, researchers Hans Ibold and Emily Metzgar are looking at “politically-oriented” Twitter users, and how they wield information.

“The writing is on the wall that people are turning to social media often, over and above traditional legacy news media,” Ibold told me. “It’s become a go-to source. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to ask: What kinds of journalistic storytelling are some of the more popular tweeters employing? The implication is that Twitter is becoming a news source — but what kind of a news source?”

By the nature of the platform, Twitter users perform functions that were once often limited to professional journalists — they publicly share ideas and information, engage with political issues, and otherwise connect and empower citizens. On the most basic level, this highlights Twitter as a disruptive force in the changing media ecosystem. Even as a relatively small percentage of online adults use Twitter (about 13 percent, according to Pew), people are able to act journalistically without relying on traditional channels to do so.

Metzgar and Ibold opted to find groups of politically oriented Twitter users the same way many people search the site: by using hashtags. With data from the university’s Twitter-analyzing Truthy project, they compared tweets using the conservative #tcot hashtag with those using the liberal #p2. A couple of examples:

Now, Metzgar and Ibold are still in the process of evaluating tweets — 250 so far, but ultimately 2,500 — for journalistic behaviors. For example, do these Twitter users verify the information they’re sharing? Do they simply assert information? Do they affirm preconceived notions? Or do they demonstrate some other special-interest approach?

Former Nieman Foundation curator Bill Kovach and Project for Excellence in Journalism director Tom Rosenstiel developed this evaluation framework — verification, assertion, affirmation, and special-interest —  in their book Blur. (For the purposes of their study, Metzgar and Ibold added a “none of the above” category.)

Researchers are also evaluating tweets for political rhetoric using three categories: attack, acclaim, and rebuttal. Their early findings have yielded some interesting results. Metzgar and Ibold find the most prevalent journalistic mode among their politically-oriented sample is assertion, which Kovach and Rosenstiel characterize as placing the “highest value on immediacy and volume and in so doing tends to become a passive conduit of information.” (Sound familiar, web users?)

“What’s going out on Twitter is truly broadcast with mass media potential.”

We’ve repeatedly seen the ease with which misinformation can spread on Twitter. (See also: Joe Paterno, Fidel Castro, and Nikki Haley.) Of tweets that demonstrated journalism behaviors, researchers found affirmation was also more likely than verification. Looking through the filter of political rhetoric, Twitter users were most likely to attack than rebut or acclaim.

Their preliminary findings also offer some hints as to distinction between partisan groups’ Twitter behaviors. For example, left-leaning Twitter users in their sample group were more likely than their right-wing counterparts to “retweet without any context,” Metzgar said. But overall, she and Ibold found “little difference” between how the two groups use Twitter. Regardless of political orientation, tweets were likely to be “scandal-oriented with emotional charge.” (Again, sound familiar, web users?)

What may be more telling is how both of these highly engaged Twitter groups — in addition to an “overall disregard for verification” — ignored traditional media, and one another. In instances when Twitter users did attempt to provide verification, it often came in the form of a link to an outside source. But rarely was that source a traditional journalistic outlet.

“Based on the small sample examined here, these politically focused conversations are happening without explicit reference to more traditional media outlets,” Metzgar and Ibold wrote in a working draft of the study.

And yet they found that the “echo chamber effect,” even as it excludes traditional media, still follows a familiar dynamic. Whether it’s in the newspaper, on cable TV, or on Twitter, people seek information that reinforces preconceived notions. Here’s how they put it in a draft:

People associate with those with whom they have something in common. Politics is a contentious topic — even among friends, partisanship is a fact of political life in the United States. People who are engaged civically in real life are more likely to be engaged online, too. Although early praise for the Internet suggested access to technology would end inequalities in society, the reality has been that new technologies simply reinforce already existing structures and the political Twittersphere is one place we expect to see the same dynamics repeated.

These findings are beginning to form a “view from 30,000 feet,” Metzgar says, but there are plans to dig much deeper. She wants to be able to analyze tweets right down to policy-based levels. Ibold wants to develop a framework for analyzing how people tweet about emotion, and what effect that has on the way people share.

“What’s going out on Twitter is truly broadcast with mass-media potential,” Metzgar said. “We think there are discussions happening out in the wide open that previously weren’t happening in the wide open, and people who are interested in those discussions can — if they choose to — track those discussions, see where things are headed and even sense tone, sentiment and emotion to get a feel for where the really engaged, activated public stands.”

Image derived from illustration by Matt Hamm used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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