Research ArticleCORONAVIRUS

Elusive consensus: Polarization in elite communication on the COVID-19 pandemic

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Science Advances  10 Jul 2020:
Vol. 6, no. 28, eabc2717
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abc2717

Abstract

Cues sent by political elites are known to influence public attitudes and behavior. Polarization in elite rhetoric may hinder effective responses to public health crises, when accurate information and rapid behavioral change can save lives. We examine polarization in cues sent to the public by current members of the U.S. House and Senate during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, measuring polarization as the ability to correctly classify the partisanship of tweets’ authors based solely on the text and the dates they were sent. We find that Democrats discussed the crisis more frequently–emphasizing threats to public health and American workers–while Republicans placed greater emphasis on China and businesses. Polarization in elite discussion of the COVID-19 pandemic peaked in mid-February—weeks after the first confirmed case in the United States—and continued into March. These divergent cues correspond with a partisan divide in the public’s early reaction to the crisis.

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