How We Hate: Twitter’s War of Words

This past weekend on Twitter was not pretty. On Saturday March 3, the hashtag #TriggeraLiberalin4Words was trending in the U.S. Twenty-four hours later, liberals responded in kind with #TriggeraConservativein2Words. Messages ranged from irritating to hateful. If anyone still needed convincing, Twitter is truly a space where the free speech reveals the worst of human nature.

What did these tweets say? A tweet intended to “trigger” someone on the other side of the political spectrum exposes the topics and objects that each faction believes will rankle the other. I collected nearly 200,000 tweets on March 4 based upon these two hashtags in order to better understand how we hate one another.

While some tweets praised the best qualities and actions of our political leaders such as the coolness of Barack Obama, the popular vote victory of Hillary Clinton, and the come-from-behind victory and now presidency of Donald Trump, countless more poked and prodded at our most raw social and political disagreement.

In order to see how conservatives and liberals used language as political ammunition, I organized words into broad themes for each hashtag if they were mentioned more than 50 times. Liberals used more words related to identity politics and minority rights, the Democratic party and its leaders, as well issues related to the media and information. Conservatives, on the other hand, were slightly more likely to evoke key social issues and dominated the discussion of Donald Trump and the Republican party.

A closer look at the social policies category reveals a hidden cleavage. Liberals were almost twice as likely to refer to the gun debate, while conservatives were more likely to bring up issues related to religion and abortion. An analysis of the top words within these categories reveals another surprising discovery: while some words were used in nearly equal proportions by both sides, other words were owned by just one.

When liberals discussed identity issues, they dominated the usage of the words “Rights,” “Equal,” “Gay,” “Civil,” and “Roy Moore.” Conservatives, on the other hand, owned “KKK,” “Men,” and “Penis.” Both sides, however, referred to transgender, whites, blacks, women, the border/wall, and immigrant issues in similar amounts, though rarely using the same phrases.

Trump was an obvious source of attention, with conservatives relentlessly reminding liberals who their President was, as well as “Trump2020” in anticipation of his re-election. While both sides talked about the Russia investigation, only liberals used the words “Mueller” and “Putin.” Liberals also loved pointing out embarrassing moments in Trump’s White House including Kushner’s recent security clearance downgrading, Trump’s bathrobe, and the misspelling of words such as “Paid” and “Loose.”

Both camps made moral appeals related to social policies. For liberals, the words “Preventable” and “Kill” referred to the notion of unnecessary gun deaths, while conservatives countered with guns “Save” “Lives,” also heavily using the word “Kill” in reference to abortion. Liberals were on the offensive against the conservative Christians with “Happy,” “Holidays”, “Atheist,” “Muslim,” and “Sharia” showing up in the top group of their religious terms. Conservatives defended their Christian faith, using phrases such as “In God We Trust”, “God Bless America,” and “God Speaks” (a reference to Mike Pence).

Conservatives and liberals both leveraged topics related to information, science, and the media, with fake news and climate change featuring prominently. Liberals uniquely used the words “Science,” [Fact]-“Checking”, “Evidence”, and “Based.” Interestingly, “Hannity” was in each group’s top-ten Media words, but liberals also attempted to frighten conservatives with “Maddow,” and conservatives ranted against “CNN,” “MSNBC,” and “Kimmel.”

Not only are ideologues speaking past one another, but sometimes they are not even speaking the same language. These verbal attacks paints a wide picture of how conservatives and liberals see their strengths and the other sides’ weaknesses. While unpleasantness is a constant of politics, these words point to a continuing breakdown of civil discourse with references to objects like the KKK as increasingly appropriate, and the violence of gun-deaths and abortion being slung across the political divide without a second thought.

Making politics bearable again.

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