Analysing UK MPs on Twitter

Anthony B. Masters
May 18 · 4 min read

Twitter has grown in importance. On 31st December 2018, 578 UK MPs (89%) had some presence on the platform. How do MPs use Twitter, and what engagement do they receive?

This is the guiding question of my exploratory look at the popular micro-blogging platform.

Some basic questions

For every tweet, a user may re-post that tweet in their own feed (‘Retweet’), store the tweet in a curated list (‘Like’), post their own comment (‘Quote tweet’), or reply with their own tweet. Some studies have looked at Twitter adoption by members of the US Congress in 2009–2011, and the categorisation of tweets by MPs. Additionally, there is now a website called MPs on Twitter, established by Michael Keath.

Using the Twitter API, which is open to social researchers, we can answer basic quantitative questions, like:

  • Which MPs and parties updated their Twitter feed most often?
  • What is the relationship between Retweets and Likes on Twitter posts?
  • Which MPs had the highest retweet count, for individual posts and on average?

In particular, I used the rtweet package developed by Michael W. Kearney, and looked at tweets sent between 1st October and 31st December 2018. MPs are categorised according to their elected party in 2017, so changes in political affiliation are not considered.


Answering questions

First, we should look at Twitter adoption. 83% of Conservative MPs have some presence on the platform, compared to 95% of Labour MPs:

Despite having fewer MPs on the platform, Labour MPs tweet more than Conservatives. Of the four main parties, it is the Scottish National Party updated their Twitter feed most often per MP (at 805 times). However, the four Plaid Cymru MPs tweeted, on average, 1,028 times each in this three-month period. For individual MPs, Lyn Brown MP (Labour, West Ham) posted 2,321 tweets between October and December 2018.

Labour MPs consistently tweet more often than Conservatives.

We can also look at, for each MP, the proportion of tweets that are retweets:

Some MPs almost entirely send retweets.

The modal bin was 55–60%, and seven MPs had a retweet share exceeding 90% — six of which were Conservatives.

Another question about how MPs use Twitter is when they send their tweets. Though dispersed, the most common period was between 12:00 and 13:00 on Wednesdays. This is the usual time of Prime Minister’s Questions, and highlights the usage of Twitter as an augmentation of parliamentary duties.

A heteroscedastic cone

The relationship between Retweets and Likes is heteroscedastic: whilst the number of Likes generally increases as the Retweet count goes up, it gets more varied.

Retweets by MP

Which MPs get the most average Retweets on their original posts? The highest mean average retweets by an MP was 1,715, and achieved by Jeremy Corbyn MP (Labour, Islington North), Labour’s leader and HM Leader of the Opposition. Ranked second was Jacob Rees-Mogg MP (Conservative, North East Somerset), who receives 1,506 retweets per original post.

There is a moderate, but entirely expected, relationship between follower counts and average retweets. A higher follower count means you have a larger reach on Twitter.

The outlying MP with over 1.8m followers is Jeremy Corbyn MP.

For individual tweets, the post with the highest retweet volume was sent by Sir Nicholas Soames MP (Conservative, Mid Sussex). The tweet, which had over 37,000 retweets, was about the current US President:

Limitations

Twitter is a live system, meaning that — even if another researcher conducted the same analysis on the same tweets — there may be differences over time. All figures stated in this article were correct at the time of drawing the Twitter data. Indeed, my draft paper originally stated that Sir Nicholas Soames’ tweet had over 38,000 retweets. On May 11th, it no longer does so.

Some MPs who ‘lock’ their accounts, to keep their tweets private, are not included in usage or engagement analysis. The absence of direct reply counts from the Twitter API is notable. If permission was granted, then these direct reply counts could be drawn using rvest — an R web-scraping package. Unfortunately, it is not possible to conduct a full study of direct replies.

In conclusion

I find that nearly 9 in 10 MPs are on the Twitter platform, sending an average 530 tweets per MP, in a three-month period. Labour MPs consistently send more tweets than Conservative MPs. There are further questions to be considered in future studies, looking at other legislatures:

  1. Does gender and ethnicity only matter for Twitter participation when the overall participation rate by elected parliamentarians is low?

2. Does the main social democratic party usually have higher participation and greater activity than the main conservative party?

3. Do smaller parties generally have above-average Twitter participation?

4. What factors influence a high retweet count on individual tweets?


There are summary tables, and the full list of status IDs, in a Google Sheet document. I also provide the R code I used in a R Pubs article.

Anthony B. Masters

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This blog looks at the use of statistics in British political debates, and is written by RSS Statistical Ambassador @anthonybmasters.

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