Methodology: Twitter Social Network Analysis

Methodology: Twitter Social Network Analysis

We commissioned Crowdbabble, a Canadian market analytics firm, to obtain data on all Twitter accounts that followed these six accounts.

Rewire selected six Twitter accounts that represent different segments of the far right, based on our extensive reporting and consultation with experts on extremist movements and hate groups.

They were:

  • Tony Perkins, the President of the Family Research Council, a leading organization in the religious right;
  • Mike Cernovich and Gavin McInnes, two media figures who are prominent in the so-called alt-lite;
  • Richard Spencer and Jared Taylor, two white supremacists who have expressed neo-Nazi sentiments; and
  • Return of Kings, a Twitter account linked to the “pick-up artist” known as Roosh V, who has more recently adopted white supremacist views.

We commissioned Crowdbabble, a Canadian market analytics firm, to obtain data on all Twitter accounts that followed these six accounts. Crowdbabble also provided us with data on how many of these accounts also followed any other of the six accounts in our study.

The total number of all followers for all six accounts was 532,736. Once we accounted for duplicates (that is, accounts that were double-counted because they followed more than one of the six leaders that we examined), the total was 424,502.

Nearly one-fifth of the accounts in this sample followed two of the six leaders we looked up. Nearly 5 percent followed three of those accounts, and nearly 2 percent followed four.

This sample is not scientific: It is based on a selection of accounts based on qualitative factors. It is also a relatively small sample because, although it contains more than half a million followers, it is based on just six key accounts. These factors meant that we could not perform the kinds of mathematical analyses that might be used by academics to establish the statistical significance of such findings.

Our analysis also did not identify or remove accounts that might be “bots,” which are automated accounts. A recent study by the University of Southern California estimated that between 9 and 15 percent of all Twitter accounts—some 48 million accounts—are likely to be bots. Although there is no computational method to definitely identify bots, experts told us that certain characteristics are highly suggestive that an account is operated by a bot. These are accounts that tweet very frequently, and/or that tweet only simple material about one or two themes. We manually screened for these factors by combing over the content shared by hundreds of the accounts within our sample, and determined that while some were likely bots, the majority were more likely to be operated by human beings.

Even accounting for these limitations, experts told us that this overlap showed a significant dovetailing of interests between people who follow Perkins, who purports to stand for “conservative” Christian values, and the ideas and beliefs of the racist and white supremacist far fight. The data also show significant overlap between the followers of some of the other accounts, respectively.

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