Tracking Tweets - Poll Week
ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS Margaret Jacobi

Screenshot from the Twindex.

As with every presidential election, candidates and their campaign chairs seek new ways to utilize every possible tool to win. In the election of 2008, the country saw President Obama and his team successfully incorporate social media as a means for measuring his constituent’s opinions and reaching his audience.

Four years later, Twitter has become a common avenue of mass yet curt communication, for both public figures and the often referenced “middle-class America.” In August however, the social media site announced a turning of the tables, declaring that they would not only serve as a platform for communication, but also as a source offering statistics on the candidates vying for the presidency.

Twitter announced its partnership with Topsy, an online search analysis company, and two polling firms, the Mellman Group and NorthStar Opinion Research, for the unveiling of Twindex.

“Many of these firms have researchers who are serious pollsters and have strong track records in political campaigns,” says Jeff Gulati, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Bentley University, of the Mellman Group and NorthStar Opinion research. “These are right kind of people who can look at the results and tell whether it passes the all-important test for face validity. Furthermore, they have the expertise to make the necessary technical adjustments to then gauge trends in public opinion.”

The Twitter Political Index, or Twindex, sifts through a massive amount of daily data, upwards of 400 million tweets, and uses an algorithm to recognize positive and negative keywords to create a chart reflecting a candidate’s popularity. As November quickly approaches, Twitter has been combing through the millions of messages posted on the site to give insight on Romney and Obama’s advances in the race.

The first presidential debates, conducted last week, generated roughly 10.3 million tweets in a mere 90 minutes, providing a slew of user opinion concerning the direction the debate was taking. However, Twindex cannot necessarily be considered a balanced  polling authority because of the somewhat niche demographic on the site, which is largely composed of a narrow, younger, and more computer-literate demographic. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, only 15 percent of online adults use Twitter, with only 8 percent on the site daily.

“Until social media users are representative of the population as a whole, both in terms of demographics and political knowledge and interest, Twindex and other similar indices will be less accurate than conventional polls. However, as long as the researcher is aware of the source of the sample bias, the results can be adjusted to reflect voters’ opinions more accurately,” says Gulati. “The greatest strength of Twindex right now is that it can detect changes in public opinion and identify intensity of support in a much more accurate way than conventional polls.”

Adam Sharp, head of government, news and social innovation at Twitter told The New York Times that Twindex was never intended to replace traditional polling methods, but instead, provide supplementary, real-time, up-to-date information on the race. Twitter’s blog refers to the Twindex as a means to further establish Twitter as a “platform for civic debate.”

“By providing more signals, more dials – that can agree or disagree – these new technologies give a more complete picture of crafting a political forecast,” said Sharp in the same interview.

While the Twindex does not serve as a substitution for polls, it does represent the interesting direction social media analysis is taking in scrutinizing public opinions. Now with over 140 million active users, Twitter and their new algorithm can make an effective resource for analysis of information and sentiment surrounding brands.

The up-to-date results of the Twindex also follow the trend for immediacy ever prevalent with the development of social media.

“Journalists will be relying on Twindex and similar sources very much so in the near future. Journalists love data and data allows them to stay objective in their reporting,” says Gulati. “Also, changes in public opinion is by definition ‘new’ and can offer drama and, thus, fits the definition of ‘news.’”

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