Researcher Studies Presence of Religion in Social Media

As Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn explains, religion is alive and well in America, with 94 percent of Americans believing in God – a statistic that has remained constant for decades. The survival of any religion is dependent on its ability to replicate, he notes, both among peers and younger generations.

Twitter_logo_blue“Naturally, with the advances in social media, traditional religions are likely to utilize these platforms as important extensions of their rituals and practices,” explains Okulicz-Kozaryn, an assistant professor of public policy at Rutgers University–Camden.

However, while increasingly significant, there is little insight into the presence of religion in social media – until now.

Okulicz-Kozaryn teams with researchers Lu Chen, of Wright State University, and Ingmar Weber, of Qatar Computing Research Institute, to examine the topic in a groundbreaking new study, titled “U.S. Religious Landscape on Twitter.”

The peer-reviewed article, which will be presented at the Sixth International Conference on Social Informatics in Barcelona in November, examined the tweets and network information of more than 250,000 Twitter users in the United States who self-declared their religion, including atheism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, in their biographies. The data included the full lists of users’ friends and followers, and more than 96 million tweets.

“Twitter is an amazing source. It seems easier to access and study than other social media, such as Facebook,” says Okulicz-Kozaryn.

Among the principal findings, the study found a strong preference for users to follow, be followed by, mention, or tweet users of the same religion. “The findings suggest that there is evidence of homophily, as users of a given denomination are in greater contact with others of the same denomination,” says the Rutgers–Camden researcher.

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Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn

The analysis also found that atheists appear to be the most active Twitter users. For 7,765 atheist users, there was an average of 3,976.8 tweets per user. By comparison, for 202,563 Christians, there was an average of 1,981 tweets per user.

The study also showed a moderate correlation between the geographic distributions of Twitter users of a given denomination in each state and the religious compositions of states as determined by offline surveys. According to Okulicz-Kozaryn, these correlations indicate that it is possible to assess the real-world population just by looking at Twitter. However, he cautions, this analysis has its limitations, as Twitter users are not a random sample of the population, and are heavily skewed towards young people and urban residents.

“However, in spite of these limitations, social media and online data may be the future of data in social science,” says Okulicz-Kozaryn. “Consequently, social media will demand further studies requiring computer and social scientists to work together.”

Okulicz-Kozaryn adds that, as social media, such as Twitter, becomes an increasingly popular means of communication, the presence of religion in social media – and the need to study its implications – will increase as well.

“Look around you. Nobody talks to one another, and everyone is staring at their smartphone or tablet – on the train, on the street, everywhere you go,” says the Rutgers–Camden researcher. “As religious groups, just as any groups, try to maintain current group members and reach new followers, part of that process is already happening online. I imagine that religious rituals and practices will require more active online participation. As that occurs, we will have more data to study this phenomenon.”

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