Tulsi Gabbard By the Numbers: Loved by the Right, Despised by the Left?

A new analysis shows the retiring Hawaii congresswoman has a highly unusual Twitter profile

Credit: Win McNamee/Getty

Tulsi Gabbard must be loving the attention. Though polls show support for her longshot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination mired in the low single digits, the Hawaii congresswoman experienced an explosion in online tweet volume after Hillary Clinton was misquoted by the New York Times as saying Gabbard was being groomed by the Russians for a third-party bid. Clinton actually implied Gabbard, while still a favorite of the Russians, was being groomed by Republicans. And to that end, she might have a point.

According to an analysis of Twitter narratives conducted by MarvelousAI, Gabbard is unique among Democratic candidates in that much of her support comes from known conservative pundits and right-leaning tweeters, while left-leaning tweeters mostly dislike her. This anomaly in political alignment was true both before and after the Clinton story, with the latest controversy producing increased volume on both sides and changing the specifics of left-leaning criticism. Now Gabbard has said she won’t run for reelection to Congress at all, in order to focus on her run for the White House.

While Gabbard has consistently attracted attention for her more conciliatory approach to the Russian-backed dictator in Syria, Bashar al-Assad, last week’s controversy created an enormous spike in tweet volume about her. While researchers like Caroline Orr have provided evidence of inauthentic behavior in support of Gabbard on Twitter, here we focus on the content of the tweets themselves in the past week.

MarvelousAI analysis shows that Clinton’s comments and Gabbard’s counter-attack generated such a huge volume about her on Twitter that it even approached the number of Trump-related tweets at its peak on October 19th. MarvelousAI probes and tracks not just tweet volume but narratives being pushed around candidates and companies. Its content analysis system found that there was already an ongoing Twitter dialogue about Gabbard being a Russian tool; the Clinton controversy only amplified and highlighted that narrative.

A dive into Gabbard’s Twitter mentions and a comparison with Pete Buttigieg, another charismatic Democratic millenial with a military background, highlights just how unusual the conversation about Gabbard is on Twitter.

As the chart below demonstrates, prior to October 18th, Gabbard and Buttigieg were in the same ballpark in terms of daily Twitter mentions, but their paths diverged after the Clinton story broke.

Compared to Buttigieg, who also enjoyed a small spike during the most recent Democratic debates, Gabbard got far more attention on Twitter after clashing with Clinton.

None of it seems likely to help her primary fight. Leading into the October Democratic debate, the most vocal Gabbard supporters (in terms of number of retweets) were well-known conservative operatives such as Sean Hannity, Chuck Woolery, and James Hoft from the Gateway Pundit. They amplified Gabbard’s accusations that the primary was rigged against her. There was little organic left-leaning support.

https://twitter.com/seanhannity/status/1182383017312083969
https://twitter.com/chuckwoolery/status/1182427616185331714
https://twitter.com/gatewaypundit/status/1182295979325841409

The chart below illustrates just how much of Gabbard’s support was coming from right-wing Twitter, even before the October 15 debate and Clinton controversy. (MarvelousAI measures the bias and credibility of the link-sharing behavior of Twitter users using ratings of news websites from the Media Bias Fact check project.) On left-wing Twitter, the predominant narrative was that she’s a controversial candidate, pulling stunts for the sake of publicity.

By comparison, the top Buttigieg narratives pre-debate were supportive of his character or electability from the perspective of the Democractic base.

https://twitter.com/mmpadellan/status/1172302252238954496

The vast majority of the Buttigieg Twitter conversation was supportive and coming from the center-left.

A week later, at the height of the controversy, suspicions that Gabbard is a tool of the Russians became her top narrative, with a tweet volume more than 20 times greater than the previous week. Another leap in volume came as right-wing tweeters showed further support for her. Negative accusations come from the center-left and national security experts such as Bill Browder, while right-wing support took the form of amplifying earlier Gabbard accusations about the primary being rigged against her and that Clinton was attacking her unfairly.

https://twitter.com/Billbrowder/status/1185836541295415297
https://twitter.com/newtgingrich/status/1183675168130043904
https://twitter.com/thebradfordfile/status/1185292871978631169

The right-wing support tweets were amplified by a variety of pro-Trump accounts and suspicious accounts. (MarvelousAI tags accounts as suspicious based on commonly accepted criteria, such as third-party bot detectors, date of account creation, number sequences in account names, etc.) However, in terms of overall volume, the biggest change was in the left-leaning criticism, which accounts for the vast majority of spikes in Gabbard mentions.

Meanwhile, Buttigieg has lost some of his Twitter halo in the same week, coming under attack from the progressive left. However, his base of support remains firmly in the center-left, and he’s not much discussed on the right.

In short, while Gabbard has punched above her weight on Twitter, all the attention has done is brought her praise from the right and amplified negative narratives about her among Democrats. Now that’s she’s no longer running to be a Democratic congresswoman, the question is what new role this unique mix of supporters and detractors opens up for her.

Disinformation analyst. Professor and Senior Scholar, Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland. Consultant, MarvelousAI.

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