More Evidence that People are Still Talking about Gun Control

by Joshua Tucker on January 31, 2013 · 4 comments

in Public opinion,Social Media

Apropos of John’s post from earlier in the week, here’s some additional evidence that people are still paying attention to the issue of gun control a month out from the Newtown tragedy:

The data are from a collection of 5 million + tweets that we’ve collected at the NYU Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) lab since the shooting that contain a number of related keywords, including the six on the graph. While the data are still in a crude format (e.g., nothing in the figure shows whether tweets are supportive of the NRA or opposed to the NRA when they include “NRA” in their tweet), one pattern is quite clear. Even as tweets directly related to the Newtown shooting have tailed off (i.e., those containing the hashmarks #ctshooting or #PrayForNewtown) people are still talking about the political/policy implications (i.e., gun control, NRA, 2nd Amendment).  This therefore extends the initial observation we made about this pattern after three days of tweets (here and here) to more than a month’s worth of tweets.

What’s interesting about this is that it provides at least some rudimentary evidence that it is not just those in the media that are continuing to talk about topics such as gun control; it is the mass public as well.  That being said, the biggest boost in the discussion of the issue by the mass public (the second set of peaks on the right part of the figures) came following President Obama’s gun control speech on January 16th, suggesting that while the public remains interested, elites (and especially the president) can play an important role in sustaining that interest.  Of course, the data (which show tweets on “gun control” trending up before the President’s speech) are also consistent with a world in which public opinion may have encouraged him to act as well.

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Update: Here is the additional figure requested by Danny Hayes in his comment below:

Danny does seem to be right that discussion picked up on the 9th, but there seems to have been almost as much chatter the previous two days as well. The biggest mini-spike actually comes a couple days after the Biden announcement. But overall, I think the pattern of Tweets clearly is consistent with Danny’s claim that the Tweeting is being driven by the White House as opposed to visa versa. And yet, it is still interesting to see that it is not just journalists “covering the story”, but indeed tens if not hundreds of thousands of individuals (with the caveat again that these are just counts of tweets) that are doing so as well. The ability to see citizens in action this way is a new opportunity for social scientists—as indeed is the ability for citizens to “speak” publicly in this way!—and one which I think will prove very interesting to follow.

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[Figures by Pablo Barberá; data from NYU SMaPP lab.]

{ 4 comments }

Danny Hayes January 31, 2013 at 11:36 am

Josh,

These are interesting data. And it would be particularly interesting to see in a more fine-grained way the timing of the uptick in the “Gun Control” graph. As I noted in the Wonkblog post that John linked to, the increase in media coverage of gun control began when Joe Biden said on Jan. 9 that Obama would be making an announcement in the coming days. Coverage then climbed higher when Obama issued his actions on Jan. 16. The spike in Twitter traffic clearly came after Biden’s comments and the attendant surge in media coverage, right around the time that news of the specifics of Obama’s actions began to leak. That seems at odds with an interpretation that the White House was responding to a sudden increase in public salience. If that were true, we’d also need to assume that the administration hastily organized a speech on Jan. 16 in response to social network chatter.

There is no doubt a complicated feedback loop among the public, the media, and politicians on this issue. These data underscore that point. But given all that we know about the power of elite messages to move public opinion — and the electorate’s reactive posture when it comes to most political debate — I think it’s far more likely that media coverage of the White House’s unusually public deliberations over gun control is sustaining mass interest in the issue, not the other way around.

Thanks again for the post. Interesting stuff.

Alexi January 31, 2013 at 2:20 pm

While the high level of sustained saliency on the topic of gun control in the wake of Newtown is certainly interesting, I’m not sure that it necessarily has any policy implications. My guess is that this demonstrates the capacity of elected officials to spend political capital in order to sustain levels of interest in a given topic among the media and the public. While in some cases this effect would certainly effect policy outcomes, I doubt it can do much against an intransigent minority in the Senate, and a majority in the House that has very little reason to seek compromise on this issue.

My sense is that the administration is trying to buy credit for action on gun control cheaply, without the sustained, long term policy commitment required to actually pass sweeping legislation. Immigration reform, sequester-related issues and policy centered around economic growth are the low hanging fruit for the run-up to the midterm elections. New gun control policies are contentious, uncertain in the wake of the Heller ruling, and perhaps most importantly, are guaranteed to excite a Republican base that has otherwise been wallowing in a kind of stunned, cannabalistic post-defeat fugue state. Were I Obama, I would do everything I could to seem as if I were doing something, while actually doing nothing. The contrast between the President’s recent pronouncements on gun violence, and the rather modest policy proposals the administration has actually come out in support of, are in line with that particular brand of political manuever.

Danny Hayes January 31, 2013 at 6:48 pm

Thanks for the update, Josh!

Allan Erickson March 7, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Short and sweet: Those of us who are pro gun have a great deal of interest in these subjects.

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