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Tweets = public opinion? New data suggests we should think twice on this

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Are the number of tweets per television show the new Nielsen ratings? Or are tweets on election day the same as exit polls? Twitter might be moving in that direction, but new data from the Pew Center should have you think twice before trusting Twitter as a barometer of public opinion.

It’s not all that surprising that tweets aren’t a perfect indicator of public opinion, considering that only 13 percent of Americans are currently using the service. But the discrepancy is worth noting as Twitter continues its push for journalists and the public to consider its data a legitimate source of news and an accurate indicator of the national discussion.

Pew explained why evaluating tweets can be useful, but not necessarily definitive:

“Overall, the reaction to political events on Twitter reflects a combination of the unique profile of active Twitter users and the extent to which events engage different communities and draw the comments of active users. While this provides an interesting look into how communities of interest respond to different circumstances, it does not reliably correlate with the overall reaction of adults nationwide.”

The Pew data, released Monday, found that during the 2012 presidential election (when Twitter was quick to note the 31 million tweets on the big night), Twitter user reactions to President Obama and Mitt Romney weren’t exactly representative of American opinion at large. Twitter users were much more critical of Romney in the first debate and more positive about Obama’s electoral victory than the public as a whole. And while both candidates faced high levels of criticism on the site, Romney faced more than Obama did through the fall campaign.

However, Twitter doesn’t just lean left. Reaction to Obama’s inaugural and State of the Union addresses on Twitter were more critical than overal reactions.

As my colleague Derrick Harris has written before, there’s huge value in using tweets as part of a larger set of data to evaluate situations, but there are plenty of statistical reasons why measuring tweets is challenging. While Twitter is already having a significant impact on how we consume news and information and is relatively mainstream at this point, it’s important to remember that people who voice their opinion on the service are still just a tiny percentage, and who might have different reasons for wanting to share.

6 Responses to “Tweets = public opinion? New data suggests we should think twice on this”

  1. the article also said that people were more critical on twitter of Obama than in pew. It seems that it isn’t just that twitter lean’s left, it’s also that people on twitter might be more opinionated/want to be seen as having something to talk about (that is why they are on twitter!)
    at we are look at tweets,fb,blogs,news to track opinion of influencer’s around issues we are debating as a society. we segment out who we are hearing from-so yes, journalists and celebrities will tend to lean left but we also track congressmen, academics, economists, etc . . . so up to the reader to decide how biased (or not) each of these groups are.

  2. The real Vlad

    Really Twitter is a new Barometer?
    Like Rachel Maddow using Thousands of fake accounts to boost her mentions on Twitter. Yeah gotta love the lefties doing anything to make themselves look popular.

  3. I see that attack on Twitter continues? Is it the same Pew Center that “found” that Pinterest has the same %% of daily users as Twitter has? Not really, at least on mobile (where Twitter still has 6x times more DAU). Pew, pew.

  4. bayesrules

    So, Twitter users tend to be younger and younger people tend to be more to the left than older people. Not a very surprising result, it seems to me.

  5. Jen Canfield

    Only 13% of the U.S. population may be using Twitter and what people say on Twitter may not be the best indicator of the Nation’s viewpoints and opinions but I think it’s wrong to underestimate the power of Twitter’s data. As someone who works in Tech it drives me crazy to think about all the potential Twitter has with all the data they have. An article in FastCo. last year detailed how Twitter can tell when someone is getting sick before they do!!

    It’s the best source of real time information anywhere in the world. It’s the voice and pulse of what’s happening in the world. And anywhere on the interent is a soundoff for people to voice their opinion. I don’t think what’s important here is if Twitter is an indicator of people’s opinions, but how influential and what a powerful tool it is to connect people in real time about events that are happening right now, regardless of if or how it influences people’s opinions.