Reactions on the publication of the “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in Harper’s Magazine.

Context and data aquisition

On July 07, 2020, Harper’s magazine published an open letter signed by 153 public figures defending free speech and criticizing what it called “illiberalism” and “cancel culture” spreading across society, while at the same time denouncing President Donald Trump as “a real threat to democracy”.

Data were collected using a twitter explorer search “justice open debate”. This resulted in a dataset containing 36,888 tweets, from which 17,693 are retweets.

The timeline shows that the publication led to a surge in Twitter activity. In fact, it sparked some criticism, as will become visible in the following.


Hashtag networks

The hashtag network is generated by connecting two hashtags if they occur together in the same tweet. The size of the hashtag indicates its frequency in the dataset.

Click here to explore the interactive network full-screen.

The hashtags give a first impression about the topics present in the discussion. Aside from the obvious hashtags such as #Harpers and #Letter, we find #CancelCulture and #freespeech as prominent hashtags. Moreover, the Black Lives Matter movement (#BlackLivesMatter, orange cluster) and #antifa (and also #blm, pink) spanned up a spatially quite separated part of the hashtag network.

Two clusters (purple, turquoise) show mainly the names of signatories of the letter. The light green cluster on top left with the main hashtag #TransPeopleAreRealPeople indicates the controversy about J.K. Rowlings public statements on trans people, which was a significant part of the debate about the Harper’s Letter, since J.K. Rowling was one of its prominent signatories.

Retweet networks

The retweet networks were generated by selecting the giant component and doing soft aggregation. Communities are Louvain communities. Information for accounts with less than 5000 followers was removed.

Click here to explore the interactive network full-screen.

The first retweet network shows the start of the debate by including tweets only until the evening of July 7th. Within a couple of hours, a clearly polarized retweet structure had arisen. A big part of the content was, as is visible in the timeline, produced within hours after the letter’s publication. We see two large, separated clusters of users. On the left side we see the accounts of Harper’s magazine, tweeting the link to the letter itself, and accounts of the initiator of the letter, Thomas Chatterton Williams (@thomaschattwill), and prominent signatories such as J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling), Steven Pinker (@sapinker) or Garry Kasparov (@Kasparov63). On the right side you find first critics such as Judd Legum @JuddLegum, Marshall Steinbaum (@Econ_Marshall) or Julia Serano (@JuliaSerano).

Note that the twitter explorer does not show the tweet by @Econ_Marshall. This is not a bug, but a feature, because this tweet is not available anymore. Since the twitter explorer saves only Tweet IDs in the network metadata, tweets that are not publicly available anymore will not be shown in the explorer.

Click here to open the interactive network full-screen.

The second retweet network shows the situation at a later stage of the debate, when additional tweets and retweets had been produced. Also additional accounts appear such as the conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro). We still observe the two - now much larger - spatial clusters. But note that especially the cluster containing users critical of the letter has been divided into two sub-clusters. This is indicated both by the Louvain clusters (denoted by different colors) as well as the spatial arrangement of the nodes. One might now ask what the reason for this sub-division might be. A look at the tweets of prominent figures within the cluster is helpful:

Max Blumenthal took a quite radical stance and criticized the initiators of the letter as “pro-war […] ideologues”.

Judd Legum, on the other hand, voiced a more nuanced critique, stating (among other things) that the signatories “are not being silenced in any way”. Since the twitter explorer displays the tweets of influential figures in the retweet network, we can assess these argumentative differences which are indicated by the sub-clusters in the network.

As we see in this example, the twitter explorer lets one explore the semantic, as well as the structural context of a debate on Twitter. If one wants to get a quick overview about the relevant actors and topics, it is a fast and easily accessible approach. Moreover, the data can be sliced into different time periods, potentially enabling a view on the dynamical development of the debate.