Editor’s Note: This blog post was contributed by Aaron R. Kaufman, a graduate student in the Department of Government at Harvard University and an affiliate of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science. Aaron would like to thank Michele Margolis for her expertise and direction and Robert Ward for his editorial assistance.
In 9 short months Pope Francis I has revolutionized the Roman Catholic Church, and the Internet has taken notice. His frequent statements on issues ranging from homosexuality to capitalism to soccer have shaken two millennia of doctrine to the core, and his humble background as a Buenos Aires nightclub bouncer has captivated a world audience. Despite all that, it’s still a little surprising that the Pope’s twitter handle “@Pontifex” is the most mentioned person and fourth-most common word used in the twitterverse, only behind “403,” “hashtag,” and “fail”. With such a massive amount of data, only Crimson Hexagon’s ForSight™ is equipped to answer questions about the nature of the conversation.
Interestingly, the most common subject of tweets mentioning the Pope has nothing to do with his politics at all. Retweets and discussion of prayers tweeted by the Pope represent 42% of the conversation, and another 39% of tweets are a form of religious instruction (though the distinction blurs at times):
The next-largest category of Papal tweeting contains political or current events statements. In late July, Pope Francis took a trip to South America, and on September 7, the Pope held a “Day of Prayer for Peace” in which he urged a cessation of violence in Syria and condemned the use of chemical weapons. Tweets mentioning the Pope spiked around 7,000% during those two events. The late July and early September spikes in the number of related tweets each last a full week, and the frequency with which the spikes occur increases in the second half of the period; overall, the rate of political tweeting mentioning the Pope has increased by almost 10%.
However, the frequency with which the Pope tweets about sexual issues, mainly homosexuality and abortion, has actually decreased by 13% over the period. Above, sexual issues are indicated by the darker green area on top of the lighter green, most noticeable in December. Below are some examples of the generally positive reaction toward the Pope’s statements toward sexual issues.
Into what kind of subcategories do the religious tweets fall? The largest group, about a third of all religious tweets, consists of Pope Francis urging his followers to work harder to be better Christians, like this post that got directly retweeted more than 4,000 times:
The second-largest urges religious charity in response to current events such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and the violence in Syria as well as instances of the Pope giving charity specifically, like when he demoted Limberg’s “Bishop of Bling” and turned his house into a shelter.
Catholic Charities, the wing of the Vatican responsible for distributing charities among the world’s poor, has cited Pope Francis’ social media influence and personal style as contributing to an enormous surge in charitable giving since his ascension.
And the third-largest group is best described by the word “Love”, consisting of uplifting spiritual messages devoid of of any controversy whatsoever.:
A fourth category of tweets relating specifically to Jesus and/or Mary was quite common early in the Pope’s tenure, and strongly resemble more generic Roman Catholic religious teachings. However, these tweets have declined in frequency by 25% (presumably because they didn’t get nearly as many re-tweets).
This figure below charts trends in the composition of Papal tweets from March 13, when the Pope took office, to December 16. The spike in the charitable giving and current affairs category in the first week of September corresponds to tweeting about Day of Prayer for Peace. The first column of percentages give the percentage of all papal tweets falling into the given category, and the second indicates the change in the rate of tweeting in that category over the last nine months. For more technical readers, another way to think about those percentages is as the slope of the best-fit line through a scatter plot of posts in any given category through time.
As you can see above, discussions of charity and current events have taken up about a quarter of the pope’s prayer-related tweets all the way through. Tweets related specifically to Jesus, Mary, and other religious individuals has averaged 17% of the volume of his prayers, but has declined from about 21% at the beginning to about 13% today. Instead, the pope has redirected his tweets toward instructing his followers to work harder in being good Christians, and to emphasize the role of love in religious life.
Finally, where are all these tweets coming from? We might expect that the vast majority of tweeting about the Pope comes from more affluent states with higher concentrations of Catholics, perhaps New York and California. Certainly those states are well-represented. But as the map below shows, Nebraska is the state with the most Pope-related tweets, followed by Kansas, Massachusetts, and Texas. For reference, the states with the most Catholics per capita according to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops are Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Texas comes in 18th, Nevada is 16th, and Kansas is 26th!
For all its detractors, the Roman Catholic Church at its best can be a vehicle to uplift millions and change the debate about how we should interact with our society. It doesn’t take a confirmed Catholic to admire a man who withholds his own bonus and gives it to the poor, or who invites the homeless of Rome into his house to share breakfast with him on his birthday. If the Pope is truly capable of boosting charity worldwide through his words and actions, he’s more than just a savvy internet personality.