Mayor Pete: Early wins Fuel Attacks

The 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg became a surprise close second to Bernie Sanders  upon the final tally from Iowa and New Hampshire.  Predictably, this makes him the target of increased attacks on social media. Using our StoryArc platform we traced some of these attacks.

Based on ratings of bias and credibility of news sites provided by the Media Bias Fact Check project, we infer political leanings and credibility of twitter users’ link-sharing behavior, visualized on a 2-dimensional scale.  For most of the campaign, conversation about Mayor Pete has been firmly in the credible left quadrant. Here’s a look at the week of 2/4-2/10/2020, illustrated with screenshots from the StoryArc platform.

Fig. 1: Tweets about Buttigieg 2/4-2/10-2020.  X-axis: left <-> right political lean.  Y-axis: credibility (greater Y = more credible).  Each dot is a user, size of dot = number of tweets from that user

Top Narratives

A look at the top narratives reveals many lines of attack, primarily from the left accusing Buttigieg of being too centrist / corporate-friendly. 

Fig. 2: Top narratives about Buttigieg 2/4-2/10-2020.  Red=attack, green=support.  Bar size = number of tweets (incl. retweets).  Narratives assigned by human coders reviewing clusters of related tweets that were computed by unsupervised methods.

Neoliberal Communist Sympathizer?

Here is an example tweet accusing Mayor Pete of being a neoliberal, with a twinge of “deep state” suspicion:

Fig. 3: Example tweet in “Buttigieg is a neo-liberal McKinsey hawk” narrative.

The neoliberal narrative, as one might expect, is circulating in the left-leaning Twitterverse, with some pickup from right-leaning trolls.

Fig. 4: Distribution of tweets mentioning Buttigieg and ‘McKinsey’, 1/1/2020-2/12/2020.

However, the most prevalent recent narrative aims to paint Buttigieg as a far-left liberal.  A large contributor to this narrative is a Washington Examiner article from April 2019 claiming that Buttigieg’s father was an Italian marxist, and therefore Buttigieg himself harbors communist sympathies:

Fig. 5: Example tweet in “Buttigieg is a far-left liberal” narrative.

The Scylla and Charybdis of Pete Buttigieg

Mentions of Buttigieg being communist appeared on and off throughout the campaign, primarily among the right-leaning / less credible corner of the Twitterverse, but really spiked in the days after the Iowa caucuses.

Fig. 6: Mentions of Buttigieg and “communist” by week, 1/1/2020-2/12/2020 (incl. retweets)
Fig. 7: Distribution about Buttigieg and “communist”, 1/1/2020-2/12/2020.

The ‘neoliberal’ narrative seems to have a mostly organic origin and signifies the struggle between progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic party, although inauthentic personas and right-wingers are certainly playing off of it in an effort to weaken Buttigieg’s candidacy.  By contrast, the ‘communist’ narrative seems designed for the general election should Buttigieg become the nominee, and what we’re seeing now is the early stages of message testing.  And some people enjoy the ironic attack from all angles:

If Buttigieg continues to be a viable candidate, attacks will likely be amplified on social media.  StoryArc provides tools to track the emergence and spread of such narratives. Our election-focused data and dashboards are freely available by signing up through  We welcome collaborators.

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