Twitter Study Shows Consensus Splinters Groups, Doesn’t Change Opinions

Opinions don't change, but groups splinter to avoid conflice
Opinions don’t change, but groups splinter to avoid conflict.

Twitter does shape public opinion, but not in a way that favors individual thought or intellectual diversity, according to a quantitative study of six months’ worth of Tweets.

Twitter, whose 241 million users send an immense number of messages per day, responds quickly to new events and often shows wide diversity of opinions about new events, according to Fei Xion, lecturer at Beijing Jiatong University in China, whose research team collected 6 million Tweets posted during the first half of 2011 to identify how opinions in them changed over time.

The team sorted Tweets according to topics including “iPhone4” and “Blackberry,” then analyzed the sentiments expressed in them to track changes in frequency and diversity of opinions. What they found was that opinions start widely diverse, then level off quickly on most topics to a point at which one opinion dominates and remains on top, held there by the outsize influence of the endorsement of large groups that carry a lot of influence. That doesn’t mean everyone agrees, however. Even when a single opinion becomes dominant, the consensus is not complete and neither counter-arguments nor peer pressure stop dissenters from expressing their opinions.

“We found that agents would rather express their opinions than change them,” according to a paper analyzing the team’s results that was published March 11 in Chaos, a peer-reviewed interdisciplinary journal from AIP Publishing. That leads to a relatively constant level of disagreement in which holders of the dominant opinion and dissenters try to change the opinion of others while only rarely changing or considering changes to their own.

The conflict, even when it is intense, does little to change the content or dominance of the leading opinion, however. “Once public opinion stabilizes, it’s difficult to change,” according to Xion.

Arguments eventually die down, but before they do, a small number of partisans is often able to affect the opinion of others in the discussion not by arguments, but by taking outside action related to the topic of conversation – protesting or adopting a different mobile carrier or other notable action. People who act on their opinions increase the influence of their own opinions and easily outweigh the impact of others who expressed opinions but did not act, the findings showed.

Over time, the ability of either actions or dissenting opinions to influence the opinion of others goes down, largely because those with different opinions tend to form their own subsets of the main group, within which the dissenting opinion may be the majority, or there may be no clear dominant opinion, which would reduce the pressure on dissenters in the sub-group compared to the main one.

Groups within social networks splinter, in other words, over specific opinions, allowing those with dominant opinions and dissenters to keep their own points of view, but rapidly reducing the potential for either side to influence, or even discuss the issue, with those who don’t agree.

Image: Shutterstock.com/ nopporn

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