Expert Commentary

Pew Research: Twitter reaction to events often at odds with overall public opinion

2013 report from the Pew Research Center demonstrating how discussions on Twitter often do not reflect more general national sentiment.

Examining past chapters in American public discourse, political scientists put forward the thesis that there were frequently two public conversations — one at the elite level, and one at the mass level. With the rise of cable news and the blogosphere, new dynamics were observed, with partisan “echo chambers” forming around liberal and conservative communities and “cyberbalkanization” becoming a new norm. With Twitter, however, novel dynamics may be emerging; the platform appears to be fostering dialogue that is often different in subject matter and direction, and does not consistently track along the previously established lines of elite/mass or left/right.

The degree to which Twitter may diverge from other mediums — and diverge from more general citizen sentiment — is important to acknowledge, particularly as more media members gather information and frame their stories based on experiences and conversations on Twitter. Some new technologies are even trying to capture and quantify social media patterns — sometimes called “sentiment analysis” — and make this area more scientific. In any case, news outlets now routinely report about Twitter reaction as a key data point for understanding and interpreting events.

A 2013 report from the Pew Research Center, “Twitter Reaction to Events Often at Odds with Overall Public Opinion,” analyzes the conversations around eight major public events in 2012-13 and compares negative/positive reactions on the microblogging platform to citizen opinion reflected in national polls.

The study’s findings include:

  • On issues such as a federal court ruling on California’s ban on same-sex marriage or Mitt Romney’s presidential debate performance, the mix of positive-negative reactions differed substantially from opinion registered in national polls. In both cases, Twitter reactions leaned more liberal and were not representative of public opinion generally; Twitter sentiment is sometimes more pro-Democratic Party or liberal.
  • The salient feature of Twitter during election season was the tone it seemed to foster: The “overall negativity on Twitter over the course of the campaign stood out. For both candidates, negative comments exceeded positive comments by a wide margin throughout the fall campaign season.”
  • In the cases of President Obama’s 2013 Inaugural and State of the Union addresses — as well as sentiments toward now Secretary of State John Kerry — the reaction on Twitter was more negative than national polls indicated.
  • In the cases of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act and the selection of Paul Ryan as the Republication vice presidential nominee, sentiment on Twitter was in line with national polling.
  • As of 2012, Twitter’s demographics skewed younger (50% of users were under 30) and more liberal (57% leaned Democratic.)

The year-long study concludes that 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.”

A related study, “Birds of a Feather Tweet Together: Integrating Network and Content Analyses to Examine Cross-Ideology Exposure on Twitter,” found that Twitter posters gravitated towards tweets and fellow posters who shared their ideological leanings: “On Twitter, political talk is highly partisan, where users’ clusters are characterized by homogeneous views and are linked to information sources.” These dynamics likely “reinforce in-group and out-group affiliations, as literally, users form separate political groups on Twitter.”

Tags: Twitter, technology, social media