STUDY: Journalists Live In ‘Microbubbles’ on Twitter, Disconnected From Wider World


A new report has confirmed that DC journalists interact with “microbubbles” of themselves of Twitter, disconnected from the wider world.

The study of Washington DC journalists, conducted by Nikkie Usher and Yee Man Margaret Ng of the University of Illinois, confirmed the long held belief that beltway media types are disconnected from everyone else. However, the study has revealed that instead of being part of just one “Beltway Bubble,” they are part of many different “microbubbles,” interacting in even smaller communities.

Usher and Ng decided to apply large, computational social science practices to this study, studying a huge number of journalists. “With more than 2,000 journalists in this study, we could not observe each of them individually in real life. So we used their digital life as a way to understand how they interact with their peers,” Ng said.

The tweets, retweets, and replies, of all credentialied congressional respondents with active Twitter accounts were collected, and then analysed, with the two authors then applying a “community detection algorithm” to discover just who they interacted with.

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Nine “communities of practice” were then identified by Usher and Ng. The largest of these was the “elite/legacy” microbubble, which consisted of around 30% of the identified journalists, including reporters from the Washington Post, New York Times, NBC, and NPR. Others included microbubbles or “clusters” centred around CNN, regulatory journalists, foreign affairs journalists, and long-form reporters.

“Most of the time, what happens on Twitter does not reflect the real world. But in the case of political journalism and political elites, generally speaking, what happens on Twitter is reality,” Ng said, arguing that Twitter is a “reflection” of their lives offline.

The “elite/legacy” microbubble of DC journalists was also the most insular of them all, with 68% of all interactions of their members going straight back to their own Twitter group.

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That also may mean they’re not engaging, in the same kind of way, with the people who are actually on the ground getting these sorts of congressional microscoops, they’re not engaging with the journalists who are the policy wonks,” Usher said.

“Political journalists in D.C. are people who use Twitter all day. And so the question is what does that do to how they think about the world. And generally, from this paper and a previous one I did on gender and Beltway journalism, it seems to me that it can make things worse,” Usher concluded.