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Only one Democratic 2020 candidate seen positively on SC social media, USC report says

‘I believe in the freedom to’: presidential hopeful outlines his values in Rock Hill

Presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., visited a crowd of hundreds Saturday at Clinton College in Rock Hill. Buttigieg said he is focusing on freedom, democracy and security.
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Presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., visited a crowd of hundreds Saturday at Clinton College in Rock Hill. Buttigieg said he is focusing on freedom, democracy and security.

Of all the major 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, a new report has found social media users in South Carolina have a clear favorite: Pete Buttigieg.

In fact, Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was seen more favorably in the Palmetto State than the country as a whole, according to data released University of South Carolina researchers.

For South Carolina social media users, 20 percent of Buttigieg’s social media reactions were negative and 26 percent were positive, giving him a net positive score of 6 percent. Nationwide, Buttigieg drew even percentages of positive and negative reactions, according to data released by researchers.

USC researchers conducted the study by using artificial intelligence to measure positive and negative sentiment from 23 million mentions on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and more for the top 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.

Those data show Buttigieg scored well with online South Carolinans for being an Afghanistan War veteran, a Christian and for his relationship with his husband. However, his pro-choice stance on abortion has caused backlash, according to the report.

Kaitlyn Park, who conducted the research, insists this is not a poll and does not measure likely voters (for example, a person who is 15 years old can contribute to the social media sentiment by tweeting, but isn’t old enough to vote).

“This is not a poll. This is social media listening,” said Park, who manages USC’s Social Media Insights Lab. “This kind of research has value...I do think it’s important how people in this state view candidates and how they’re responding online.”

The research is particularly timely as South Carolina is the first presidential primary state in the South and a place in which 2020 Democratic candidates have been campaigning for months.

“Everybody is looking at South Carolina in this primary cycle,” Park said.

Despite several visits to the state, Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, received the most negative net sentiment among social media users, with the former receiving a 26 percent net negativity and the later receiving a 27 percent net negativity.

“We’re a conservative state so we’re going to see a negative sentiment,” toward Democrats, Park said.

Park’s data does have limitations, however. For example, artificial intelligence often has issues detecting humor, sarcasm or colloquialisms. Another limitation: the technology Park uses, developed by Boston-based Crimson Hexagon, heavily favors Twitter, because Facebook has become more protective of user data since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Park said.

USC’s Insights Lab used the same technology to measure social media response to the May 1 teacher protests, which it found were overwhelmingly positive, according to a previous article from The State.

Reactions to candidates were based more on perception than politics, Park said. For example, Sanders and Warren are considered poster children for the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. The fact that Warren’s campaign has released multiple, detailed policy proposals and Buttigieg has been criticized for releasing comparatively few proposals, did not likely play into the social media perceptions, Park said.

The exception to that rule is Democratic Party frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden, who received more mentions than any other candidate but received a net, negative perception of 23 percent.

Though Biden is considered toward the more moderate wing of the Democratic Party, most of SC’s online animosity toward him has come from supporters of President Donald Trump who see Biden as Trump’s most likely opponent in the general election.

“In these mentions (of Biden), you are seeing #MAGA, #CreepyJoe...the same kind of language that comes from the president himself,” Park said. “It’s a lot of Trump supporters toeing the party line.”

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