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We the Tweeters

In U.S. presidential election, unified messaging is key to positive candidate sentiment on Twitter

BLOOMINGTON, Ind.— Election Day is tomorrow, and if you’re wondering how Americans feel about the candidates, simply take a look at Twitter.

As arguably the most polarizing election in U.S. history, with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton running against Republican candidate Donald Trump, this year’s contest has played out extensively on Twitter. Trump has 12.9M followers on his @RealDonaldTrump handle, while Clinton has 10.1M on hers @HillaryClinton. Trump has taken to Twitter more than any other candidate in history, and Clinton has criticized him for being baited by tweets.

Indiana University staffer Tassie Gniady was curious about how all of this was playing out with Twitter users. This summer and fall, she looked at tweets on the social media platform in an effort to gauge the sentiment of the 2016 presidential election.

This research shows that for a platform like Twitter, a single message is really important.

As IU’s cyberinfrastructure for digital humanities coordinator, Gniady teaches faculty, staff and students how to use R, a popular language for text analysis. This past spring, she began a project in which she used R to examine the sentiment of the election tweets.

"Twitter has been used in movements as varied as the Arab Spring and the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag used to draw attention to the Boko Haram kidnapping of the Nigerian school girls," said Gniady. "It’s a litmus test and a platform for everyone. To ignore Twitter’s influence means we’re ignoring a big part of the population who is dedicated to using it."

For her research, Gniady “scraped” (or collected) 3,200 random tweets mentioning “Trump” or “Hillary,” and words were assigned a value: positive words received a +1 score, negative words received a -1 score. These scores were then summed to give the tweet a total score.

On November 2, 2016, as shown below, Hillary Clinton was seen more favorably than Donald Trump across the positive spectrum. Donald Trump was seen more negatively (especially at -4). But this was not always the case.

On May 5, 2016, just a few days after Trump won the Indiana primary, Trump is seen both extremely positively (+3) and extremely negatively (-3) in comparison to Hillary Clinton, whose only clear dominance appears at -1. However, in July, Trump is seen more positively than Clinton (who, at the time, had not yet been endorsed by Bernie Sanders). By October, the visualization portrays a tightening race; this is somewhat surprising given that this was not long after the first presidential general debate in which polls showed Clinton as the winner.

What does Gniady make of all this? 

"Trump has been an active tweeter for a very long time, and in this election, he’s had a consistent tagline of 'Make America Great Again,' she said. "Meanwhile, for Clinton, there’s been a lack of unified messaging as she went through various slogans like 'I’m with her,' 'Stronger together' and 'Progress for the rest of us.'

"Now that the Clinton campaign has settled on one hashtag #ImWithHer, her Twitter followers have rallied behind it and sentiment supporting her seems to have coalesced. This research shows that for a platform like Twitter, a single message is really important,” she said. “There’s been a zeitgeist in which the Clinton base has realized what a powerful platform Twitter can be.”