This story has been updated.
On the week of Sept. 8, 2014, the Web site Skeptical Science launched an online campaign to emphasize the broad scientific agreement about climate change. It was called “97 hours of consensus,” and for each hour, the organizers put out a new statement from a climate scientist highlighting the scientific consensus — accompanied by tweetable cartoon images of each scientist.
The campaign was popular enough that organizers claimed to have reached “millions” online. A tweet from Barack Obama surely didn’t hurt:
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) September 9, 2014
The campaign did indeed create a successful spike in online attention, say the authors of a new academic analysis that crunches vast amounts of Web data to compare how differently Twitter and the mainstream media handle the subject of climate change.
But what’s most interesting is how much this Twitter-focused event differed from what the mainstream media covered that same week in the climate sphere. Namely, many outlets focused on a new report from the National Audubon Society, examining 588 bird species from North America and finding that “more than half are likely to be in trouble” due to climate change, with much of their traditional ranges lost by the year 2080.
“While other studies have made similar pronouncements, this report gives the most comprehensive projections of what is likely to happen to America’s birds,” reported Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press.
The Twitterverse, though, didn’t care so much about the Audubon study. Indeed, the contrast between the two very different climate focuses in this particular week is an example of the “significant differences between triggers, actions, and news values of events covered” by the mainstream media as opposed to on Twitter noted in the new paper by Alexandra Olteanu of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland and three co-authors.
A work of what might be called “computational social science,” the paper uses media databases and a sampling of Tweets to study 17 months of climate related discourse (from April 2013 through September 2014) in both regular media and also on Twitter, focusing on which kinds of events triggered peaks in climate-framed coverage in the different media.
In general, the study found, mainstream journalists cover lots of reports (like the Audubon one), lots of government meetings and proceedings, and lots of weather extremes or disasters. People on Twitter, in contrast, tend to show a different pattern. They focus less on disasters and official proceedings. And most strikingly, the study found that in Twitter’s climate “coverage,” the individual mattered more, even if he or she was not famous:
Actions by individuals appear prominently on Twitter. In about half of the cases, these individuals do not belong to the elite: they are neither rich, nor powerful, nor famous. Twitter indeed allows those individuals, in many cases, to generate peaks of attention as large as the ones that are obtained by large organizations or governments.
The “97 hours of consensus” Twitter spike would seem to fit this analysis — it was, in essence, a series of individual scientists making statements.
“I think it’s important for people to at least be aware of the fact that there are significant differences in the type of information that they end up seeing when they focus on one media or another,” says lead study author Alexandra Olteanu of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. Focusing just on mainstream media — or, getting all your climate news or other news from Twitter — “might bias your views about a certain issue,” she says.
The conclusions about how Twitter and mainstream media cover different climate change “events” was conducted using computer science techniques to extract data from the Web. To analyze media stories, the researchers turned to a Google-supported database called Global Data on Events, Location, and Tone, which tracks global media to detect daily events. The analysis produced a stunning 561,644 URLs of news articles seemingly related to climate, which were then sifted through to detect events where media attention peaked.
Meanwhile, a similar analysis was performed with Twitter by taking a random sampling of Tweets via the Internet Archive and then extracting those containing “climate change” and related terms. That, in turn, produced a sampling of 482,615 tweets — or, 28,000 every month — which the authors estimated to be about 1 percent of the total 2.8 million monthly tweets about climate change.
Since the work was done by programs, though, the researchers also had to have readers go through to take out false positives, like this. This was done both by the study authors and by a team of annotators who rated the content.
One aspect of the analysis that is novel, says co-author Carlos Castillo of the Qatar Computing Research Institute, is the sheer volume of content that was considered. “To the best of my knowledge there is no other study comparing mainstream media and social media considering this amount of stories and tweets,” said Castillo by email. “People have compared these media in the past using fully-manual content analysis or datasets that are much smaller than this one.”
Olteanu says she thinks that if the analysis were extended to issues beyond climate change, many similar patterns would emerge. “I think Twitter will typically cover more individual generated events than mainstream media would,” she says.
It is important to note, however, that Twitter and the mainstream media do often find the same events newsworthy.
For instance, in that very same week of September 2014, there was a climate related news event that spiked both on Twitter and in the mainstream media, according to the study authors. It was the story that the World Meteorological Organization (a U.N. body) had released a new finding that atmospheric carbon dioxide “rose at a record-shattering pace” in 2013, as The Post reported. It was the largest single year increase since 1984.
Here was a development that was both an official statement of an official body — cue the mainstream journalists — but also an incredibly alarming and dramatic sound bite and factoid. And both media collaborated to send it everywhere.
So in general, you shouldn’t get all your news from Twitter, or from the mainstream media — but once in a while, you’ll be well served by either.