Twitter has grown in importance. On 31st December 2018, 578 UK MPs (89%) had some presence on the platform. How do MPs use Twitter, and what engagement do they receive?

This is the guiding question of my exploratory look at the popular micro-blogging platform.

Some basic questions

Using the Twitter API, which is open to social researchers, we can answer basic quantitative questions, like:

  • Which MPs and parties updated their Twitter feed most often?
  • What is the relationship between Retweets and Likes on Twitter posts?
  • Which MPs had the highest retweet count, for individual posts and on average?

In particular, I used the rtweet package developed by Michael W. Kearney, and looked at tweets sent between 1st October and 31st December 2018. MPs are categorised according to their elected party in 2017, so changes in political affiliation are not considered.

Answering questions

Despite having fewer MPs on the platform, Labour MPs tweet more than Conservatives. Of the four main parties, it is the Scottish National Party updated their Twitter feed most often per MP (at 805 times). However, the four Plaid Cymru MPs tweeted, on average, 1,028 times each in this three-month period. For individual MPs, Lyn Brown MP (Labour, West Ham) posted 2,321 tweets between October and December 2018.

Labour MPs consistently tweet more often than Conservatives.

We can also look at, for each MP, the proportion of tweets that are retweets:

Some MPs almost entirely send retweets.

The modal bin was 55–60%, and seven MPs had a retweet share exceeding 90% — six of which were Conservatives.

Another question about how MPs use Twitter is when they send their tweets. Though dispersed, the most common period was between 12:00 and 13:00 on Wednesdays. This is the usual time of Prime Minister’s Questions, and highlights the usage of Twitter as an augmentation of parliamentary duties.

A heteroscedastic cone

Retweets by MP

There is a moderate, but entirely expected, relationship between follower counts and average retweets. A higher follower count means you have a larger reach on Twitter.

The outlying MP with over 1.8m followers is Jeremy Corbyn MP.

For individual tweets, the post with the highest retweet volume was sent by Sir Nicholas Soames MP (Conservative, Mid Sussex). The tweet, which had over 37,000 retweets, was about the current US President:

Limitations

Some MPs who ‘lock’ their accounts, to keep their tweets private, are not included in usage or engagement analysis. The absence of direct reply counts from the Twitter API is notable. If permission was granted, then these direct reply counts could be drawn using rvest — an R web-scraping package. Unfortunately, it is not possible to conduct a full study of direct replies.

In conclusion

  1. Does gender and ethnicity only matter for Twitter participation when the overall participation rate by elected parliamentarians is low?

2. Does the main social democratic party usually have higher participation and greater activity than the main conservative party?

3. Do smaller parties generally have above-average Twitter participation?

4. What factors influence a high retweet count on individual tweets?

There are summary tables, and the full list of status IDs, in a Google Sheet document. I also provide the R code I used in a R Pubs article.

This blog looks at the use of statistics in Britain and beyond. It is written by RSS Statistical Ambassador and Chartered Statistician @anthonybmasters.

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