Polarization in the Time of Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic had the potential to unite Americans of different political stripes in the common goal of protecting the health of the nation. Instead, as is well-documented, it exacerbated existing political divides, including on such issues as mask-wearing and avoiding large gatherings. Even President Trump’s infection and subsequent hospitalization did not change most people’s outlooks.

Left vs. Right, March – Oct 2020

At MarvelousAI, we set out to look for quantitative evidence of these divides in social media. Since March 2020, we have been collecting Twitter conversations about coronavirus and related keywords, averaging about 120K tweets/day. Overlaying the tweets with a link-based measurement of political leanings (derived from Media Bias Fact Check ratings of news sites), we extracted the most salient words in left-leaning vs. right-leaning Twitter conversations over this time period, using TF*IDF weights across the entire corpus. The animation below displays these salient words side-by-side in weekly intervals, and demonstrates the depths of the divide.

The left was concerned about the seriousness of the disease, the Trump administration mismanaging of the pandemic and the rising toll in human lives, e.g.

Meanwhile in an alternate reality, the right focused on blaming China for unleashing the virus and QAnon-style conspiracy theories, e.g.

TrumpGetsCovid – or not?

On October 1st, Donald Trump announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19. A large proportion of his inner circle staff and top GOP legislators followed suit, likely as the result of a Rose Garden event on Sept. 29th where social distancing protocols were widely disregarded. In mainstream media, Trump’s illness and hospitalization consume all attention. But what did Twitter have to say about it? Below is a timeline of salient words on the left and the right for the period of Sept. 28 – Oct. 13 2020.

Again, the contrast could not be starker. The Left followed the Covid-positive announcements like falling dominoes and looked to re-emphasize the importance of masks and distancing:

Meanwhile in an alternate reality, the Right pressed on with conspiracy theories, as if nothing happened, or proclaimed that Trump single-handedly beat down the virus:

Reality Bites

The novel coronavirus is not going away and does not care who gets blamed for mismanaging it. The only reliable way to keep it at bay has been to follow scientific consensus and be disciplined about safety measures (as demonstrated by countries like Germany or New Zealand). We hope that the US public officials and voters will come to that realization some day.

In the meantime, we will keep monitoring the social media conversations. Please let us know if you would like access to the data for your own analysis.

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