the recent pew study on social media and public opinion

Control Point Group, a political consultancy firm, asked my opinion on a recent Pew study of public opinion and twitter. I’ll quote Politico reporter Dylan Byers, who summarized the Pew study:

Sixteen percent of U.S. adults use Twitter and just half that many use it as a news source, making it an unreliable proxy for public opinion, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center and tyhe John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Take last year’s Republican primary, for example: “During the 2012 presidential race, Republican candidate Ron Paul easily won the Twitter primary — 55% of the conversation about him was positive, with only 15% negative,” Pew writes. “Voters rendered a very different verdict.”

Or the Newtown school shooting: “After the Newtown tragedy, 64% of the Twitter conversation supported stricter gun controls, while 21% opposed them. A Pew Research Center survey in the same period produced a far more mixed verdict, with 49% saying it is more important to control gun ownership and 42% saying it is more important to protect gun rights.”

That’s worth keeping in mind next time you see the reaction-on-Twitter piece in the wake of any major national news event. However, Twitter may be a more reliable indicator of youth sentiment.

This is a subtle point. Pew is doing what computer scientists call a sentiment analysis. Roughly speaking, you write a program that guesses whether some text, in this case a tweet, reflect a positive or negative sentiment. The literature (including the Pew study cited) shows very mixed results. The take away point for me is that sentiment is either tricky to measure feelings properly or that emotional context of text doesn’t correlate well with behaviors that we care about.

In contrast, our research (and that done by others) shows that relative shares of mentions, regardless of sentiment, do show a positive correlation with some political behaviors, like voting. My hypothesis is that the relative volume of talk is simply a proxy for buzz, name recognition, popularity, or some other variable. Regardless, the correlation is there.

Your path to success: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

November 6, 2013 at 12:01 am

One Response

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  1. There is an older Pew study that used Crimson Hexagon to track topics in Twitter around 2010 and compare it to their public opinion data and other media content analysis. If I remember correctly, they found some significant differences across these sources, but these might be attributable to the novelty of Twitter at the time and the much smaller population of users back then.


    Chris Bail

    November 6, 2013 at 2:43 pm

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