Moral discourse in the Twitterverse: Effects of ideology and political sophistication on language use among U.S. citizens and members of Congress

Joanna Sterling, John T. Jost

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


We analyzed Twitter language to explore hypotheses derived from moral foundations theory, which suggests that liberals and conservatives prioritize different values. In Study 1, we captured 11 million tweets from nearly 25,000 U.S. residents and observed that liberals expressed fairness concerns more often than conservatives, whereas conservatives were more likely to express concerns about group loyalty, authority, and purity. Increasing political sophistication exacerbated ideological differences in authority and group loyalty. At low levels of sophistication, liberals used more harm language, but at high levels of sophistication conservatives referenced harm more often. In Study 2, we analyzed 59,000 tweets from 388 members of the U.S. Congress. Liberal legislators used more fairness- and harm-related words, whereas conservative legislators used more authority-related words. Unexpectedly, liberal legislators used more language pertaining to group loyalty and purity. Follow-up analyses suggest that liberals and conservatives in Congress use similar words to emphasize different policy priorities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)195-221
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of Language and Politics
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018



  • Basic values
  • Morality
  • Political ideology
  • Psycholinguistics
  • Social cognition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Linguistics and Language

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