Partisan politics and the opioid epidemic: A social media analysis

The opioid epidemic has had devastating effects in red states and blue states alike, making it a prime target for bipartisan action. But both federal and state policy have been characterized by sharp partisan differences in response to rising rates of opioid-related overdose deaths. In a study recently published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, Daniel C. Stokes and Anish K. Agarwal sought to understand how partisanship might affect legislative progress on this seemingly bipartisan issue by analyzing the content of state legislators’ opioid-related social media posts over time.

A line graph showing the difference in word frequency in Democratic posts versus Republican posts.
A comparison of most frequently used words in Democrats’ and Republicans’ opioid-related social media posts. (Image: Stokes et al., Journal of General Internal Medicine, 2021)

Using natural language processing tools, the team analyzed more than 40,000 state legislators’ opioid-related posts from 2014-19 (primarily to Facebook and Twitter), and tracked partisan differences in attention to key topics over time. The researchers found that while the volume of Democrats’ and Republicans’ opioid-related posts were equally correlated with state overdose death rates, the content of posts increasingly diverged over the study period.

Much of the growing gap in state legislators’ opioid-related social media content could be attributed to unequal attention to three key topics: pharmaceutical company accountability, opioid use disorder (OUD) treatment, and manufacture and trade of illegal drugs. Democrats’ posts increasingly spoke to financial penalties for the pharmaceutical companies responsible for manufacturing and advertising commonly prescribed opioids; where these funds would be directed was often unclear. Democrats were also increasingly likely to post about OUD treatment and recovery. Republicans’ posts, on the other hand, increasingly spoke to curbing the illegal drug trade, particularly across international borders.

This story is by Daniel C. Stokes and Anish K. Agarwal. Read more at Penn LDI.