What Twitter gets wrong

March 5, 2013

After the election, 52 percent of voters said they took joy in Barack Obama’s victory, but in the world of Twitter, his victory was a crowning glory for many more people.

Over three quarters (77 percent) of Twitter comments following Obama’s re-election were positive, while just 23 percent were negative. The disconnect occurred all too often in 2012, according to a Pew Research Center study released Monday, with Twitter flunking as an early indicator of how Americans more broadly are reacting to political events.


Twitter.

Pew compared an automated content analysis of all tweets surrounding eight major political events to results from public opinion surveys conducted immediately after those events. The tone of Twitter conversation matched the balance of public opinion in only two of eight comparisons. In three cases, Twitter comments were much more liberal than the public at large while in three other instances tweets painted a much more conservative picture than public opinion polls.

Twitter comments were, for example, far more positive than negative after a federal court ruled that California’s ban on same sex marriage was unconstitutional. But Americans’ reactions tilted negative in a Pew poll after the event.

Pew also finds that while Americans overwhelmingly saw Mitt Romney as doing a better job in the first debate, the overall Twitter tone favored Obama. (Despite the overall read on Twitter, it’s worth noting that many high-profile reporters on Twitter gave positive reviews of Romney’s debate performance or declared him the winner, while few concluded the opposite.)

The Democratic tilt in these three events is to be expected, as Twitter users are more apt to lean Democratic than the public as a whole (57 percent vs. 46 percent in Pew data).

But Twitter conversation tilted in a more Republican direction on three other issues.  For example, Obama’s 2012 State of the Union drew twice as many negative as positive tweets, even as a post-speech poll found Americans tilting positive by a 42 to 27 percent margin.

Twitter comments only resembled public opinion on reaction to the Supreme Court’s health care ruling and Paul Ryan’s pick as a vice presidential candidate.

Pew’s analysis also found Twitter discussions of Obama and Romney were quite negative in 2012. Throughout the fall campaign, both candidates faced more negative than positive comments, with Romney facing the most consistent criticism.

The reasons for the divergence are numerous and uncertain. As the Pew report notes, “Twitter users are not representative of the public.” Just 13 percent of Americans use Twitter -- half of whom are younger than 30 years old  -- and only 3 percent tweet at least “sometimes” about news. In addition, the nature of a self-published tweet is far different than that of a traditional survey response, where respondents are chosen and asked a standardized questionnaire.

Twitter’s rapid growth in political spheres has raised expectations that insights on public opinion can be drawn by aggregating tweets for a “quick pulse” on public opinion. But the lack of alignment between Twitter reactions and the general public -- in both the conservative and liberal directions -- indicates that while the outlet can be a vibrant host for prominent opinion leaders and activists who take part in debate, large-scale Twitter reaction to major events bears little resemblance most of the time to the overall public found in nationally representative surveys.

Clement is a pollster with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post media. Capital Insight polling director Jon Cohen and pollster Kimberly Hines contributed to this report.

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