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UofSC analysis: Immigration, abortion lead social media conversations

Posted June 19, 2019
By Rebekah Friedman,, 803-576-7270
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Immigration and abortion dominate public social media conversations on the key issues in the 2020 race for the presidency both in South Carolina and nationally, according to a new analysis by researchers at the University of South Carolina.  Other hot button issues such as climate change, tariffs and gun control lag far behind in public social media posts. 

The Social Media Insights Lab at the College of Information and Communications used artificial intelligence-powered software to analyze a database of more than 70 million social media mentions nationally – including nearly 300,000 in South Carolina – between January 1 and June 17. The survey included public comments on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Reddit, blogs, forums and reviews. (See graphics 1 and 2 at end of article.)

“We’re talking about a massive sample size,” says Insights Lab manager Kaitlyn Park. “What those 70 million mentions showed us was that issues here are largely reflective of issues nationwide, meaning South Carolina might not be that different from the rest of the country.”

Immigration captured the largest share of voice among the issues with 41 percent of the comments in South Carolina and 40 percent nationally. Abortion was second with 31 percent in South Carolina and 27 percent nationally. (See graphics 3 and 4.)

The lab’s software can categorize recurring topics in conversations through a feature known as “drivers of opinion.” The breakdown of South Carolina’s 120,000 immigration mentions showed that social media users expressed:

  • Opposition to illegal immigration using the hashtag #Build the Wall (15 percent vs. 16 percent nationally).
  • Negative sentiment toward undocumented immigrants or refugees (32 percent for both).
  • Opposition to immigration, citing drug trafficking as a reason (16 percent for both).
  • Opposition to “the left” or Democrats (28 percent vs. 24 percent nationally).
  • Support for Democratic stances on immigration (7 percent vs. 8 percent nationally).

Generally positive expressions regarding immigration accounted for just 2 percent of the conversation in South Carolina and 3 percent nationally. (See graphic 5.)

Spikes in conversation coincided with immigration-related news events and statements from President Trump. The lab found that the president’s @realDonaldTrump Twitter account, which now has more than 61 million followers, was the lead influencer driving debate around the issue nationally. (See graphic 6.) 

“What struck me is how the ‘drivers of opinion’ mirror Trump points,” says Charles Bierbauer, a former CNN White House correspondent and South Carolina professor emeritus. “The Democrats are simply being outshouted.”

Randy Covington, a faculty member in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications who directs the Insights Lab, says the findings suggest immigration may be a challenge for Democrats hoping to go head-to-head with Trump in 2020.

“Our analysis shows immigration continues to be a winning issue for President Trump,” Covington says. “Democrats who do not address the issue or try to sidestep it do so at their peril.”

While immigration had the highest post volume throughout most of 2019, abortion temporarily surpassed it around the time that several states enacted bills restricting abortion services.

Graphs reflecting conversation volume for both South Carolina and the U.S. illustrate a dramatic spike in mid-May following the passage of Alabama’s Human Life Protection Act, a near-total ban on abortion. At their highest point, national mentions topped 1.5 million in a single day.

“We saw a lot of anger from South Carolinians on both sides of the issue,” Park says. “One surprising finding when looking at the state was that there were more negative comments about restricting abortion than about the practice itself.”

The lab analyzed more than 19 million national mentions regarding abortion – including 90,000 in South Carolina – to gauge public sentiment. It found little variation between the two populations. Palmetto State conversations expressed: 

  • Negative sentiment regarding perceived hypocrisies within the anti-abortion movement or expressed opposition to abortion bans (38 percent vs. 36 percent nationally).
  • Positive sentiment toward abortion-rights efforts; the bulk of these users shared personal abortion experiences or expressed support for others’ stories using the #YouKnowMe hashtag (20 percent vs. 22 percent nationally).
  • Anti-abortion attitudes or opposition to Planned Parenthood (21 percent vs. 23 percent nationally).

Neutral news mentions or content from advocacy groups, which was not tabulated since it did not come from individuals, accounted for 21 percent in South Carolina and 19 percent nationwide.  

These findings come just days before the Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s candidate forum in Columbia. Eleven of the 19 Democratic presidential hopefuls are slated to attend Saturday’s event on South Carolina’s campus to discuss their positions on abortion rights and reproductive health care.

Planned Parenthood is a polarizing topic on social media. The lab found that about half of all mentions of the reproductive health care organization expressed negative sentiment, both in South Carolina and nationally.

Of the other issues studied, climate change was the third most-discussed with a 15 percent share of voice in South Carolina and 17 percent nationally, followed by tariffs with eight percent in the state and 10 percent nationally. Gun control had the lowest share of the conversation with five percent in the state and six percent nationally.

This study is the second in a series of South Carolina Insights reports that analyze social media conversations on relevant topics. The first report examined more than 23 million mentions and found that Pete Buttigieg had the largest positive sentiment on social media — both in South Carolina and the nation— among the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination.



About the Social Media Insights Lab

Housed in South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications, the Social Media Insights Lab uses Crimson Hexagon software to generate, visualize and interpret data on everything from consumer sentiment to crisis response. Since its launch in January 2019, the lab has enhanced the university’s research efforts and raised its profile as a thought-leader in social media analytics.

View a full list of reports at and follow the lab on Twitter at @UofSCInsights

For media inquiries, contact Rebekah Friedman at or 803-576-7270.

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