Can social media conversations predict election results? A growing number of organizations are trying to find out.
Twitter launched the Twitter Political Index — or Twindex — on Aug. 1. It's an attempt to measure Twitter users' opinions about the leading presidential candidates by evaluating their tweets.
The index was developed in partnership with two prominent political pollsters — Democrat Mark Mellman and Republican Jon McHenry — and a firm that analyzes social media activity, Topsy.
Topsy uses software to evaluate the sentiments expressed about people or things in tweets by Americans each day. It then compares the results with tweets about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Finally, it creates a 0-100 ranking that resembles an SAT percentile. An 80 score means tweets about the candidate were more positive than tweets about 80 percent of all people and things that were tweeted about that day. A score of 20 means the candidate's tweets were more negative than 80 percent of the others.
Computing Obama's Twindex scores for the previous two years, Topsy said they often paralleled his approval ratings in Gallup polls.
Adam Sharp, Twitter's head of government, news and social innovation, said the index offers a peek into “conversations that just an election cycle ago were limited to coffee shops, dinner tables and water coolers.”
The most influential conversations are among friends, relatives and colleagues, Mellman said, but “we have never really had a way to peer into those discussions before.”
The index can't claim the precision of scientific surveys, both pollsters said. But the way the index has paralleled Obama's Gallup ratings suggests that “what we're seeing in these conversations is not radically divorced from what we're seeing in the country as a whole,” Mellman said.
Mining the conversations reveals nuances that aren't captured in yes-or-no or multiple-choice questions in a poll, Sharp said. A campaign could find the Twindex data helpful if the data could show which topics link a candidate to more positive conversations, McHenry said.
Twindex might offer a “leading indicator” of opinion, Sharp said during the Democratic National Convention. In the days following the spike of American good feeling caused by Osama bin Laden's death in May 2011, for instance, Obama's Twindex score dropped more quickly than his approval ratings in polls, “as the Twitter conversation returned to being more focused on economic issues,” Sharp said at the index's launch.
Twindex has obvious weaknesses, says Brad Fay, chief operating officer of the Keller Fay Group, a research and consulting firm that specializes in word-of-mouth marketing. For one thing, three-quarters of conversations occur face-to-face and 15 percent by phone, he says. Only about 10 percent occur online, and just a fraction of those on Twitter, he says.
“We know that the Twitter universe skews young whereas the voting universe skews a little older,” he says. “Some people participate at a much higher frequency rate than other people. You could tweet once a month or 10 times a day, but on Election Day everyone gets just one vote.”
Fay's firm has teamed with National Journal to evaluate conversations offline as well as online by conducting weekly surveys of people who match the demographics of the total U.S. adult population. They are asked the topics of conversations they had face-to-face, over the phone and online and whether the tone was positive or negative.
Mitt Romney's Twitter site registers more than 1.3 million followers. The new Twitter Political Index attempts to measure Twitter users' opinions about the presidential candidates by evaluating their tweets. (CQ Press/Screenshot)
An interesting finding of “Conversation Nation,” as the project is called: Political polling results tend to be stable while “we find the conversation changes quite a bit,” Fay says.
The project does not pretend to be predictive, Fay says. But when Keller Fay did the same surveying as an R&D project four years ago, Obama “was running away with the conversation, both in the amount of conversation and the positive nature of the conversation. It was very clear in that data who was leading on Election Day.”
For the week ending Sept. 30, Fay's survey found 52 percent of conversations about Romney were mostly negative, 23 percent mostly positive and the rest neutral or mixed. It was the Republican's most negative score since the surveying began in late May. Obama recorded his highest positive score, 47 percent, to 30 percent negative.
The Twitter index showed tweets about the candidates were much more negative than all tweets on Sept. 30. Obama scored higher than Romney, 20-19, and led for most of the entire preceding week.
Others attempting to measure online sentiment include CNN, in a collaboration with Facebook, and NBC News.
CNN's “Election Insights” simply reports the number of Facebook posts about the presidential and vice presidential candidates, broken down by state and various demographics. Obama and Romney ran close together through most of the week ending Sept. 30, with each spiking occasionally. GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan inspired many more posts than Vice President Joe Biden.
NBC analyzes social media posts using a tool developed by Crimson Hexagon, a Boston firm that monitors and analyzes social media activity. The analysis appears on the network's “Politics” page. On Sept. 29, Romney received more expressions of support than Obama in all tweets and a sample of Facebook posts.
— Tom Price