Friday, 6 May 2011

Is Twitter undemocratic?

There was an interesting Twitter poll posted by Nixon McInnes yesterday, based on the number of Tweets featuring yes2av or no2av hashtags. It was interesting largely because the graphic underscored one of the main reasons why the medium is still a poor conduit for market research.

In case you missed it, the No to AV camp triumphed. But using Twitter to try to predict that result would have proved disastrous. According to Nixon McInnes’s data, there were over 28,000 tweets containing the yes2av hashtag but only 11,000 containg no2av. In other words, almost three times as many yes campaigners than no campaigners.

Social media sentiment tools claim to offer a whole range of useful services, from stock market predictions to product-launch analysis. But the viability of these services exists both on the assumption that sentiment analysis can be predicted accurately on a large scale and that the sample is an accurate representation of the whole population. Research by Daniel Gayo-Avello, Panagiotis T. Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj at the Department of Computer Science, Wellesley College, Massachusetts, suggests neither, showing that in the last US congressional elections “Twitter did no better than chance in predicting results”.

Twitter’s UK population has long been associated with liberal tendencies. Telegraph writer and polemicist Milo Yiannopoulos worries that the site’s “hegemony of the Left” raises questions about “the contribution of social media to the national debate.”

“…doesn't the echo chamber on Twitter risk distorting discussion in the public square, giving a faulty impression of what most people actually think? And, with a media increasingly taking its cues from Twitter and Facebook, platforms colonised by spoilt, urban liberals, won't the so-called silent majority of Middle England become even more disenfranchised, and, consequently, suffer still further from under-representation and ridicule?”

Yiannopoulos oversimplifies the argument. To claim that Twitter’s “spoilt, urban liberals” are able to bend Middle England’s silent majority to their will ignores the openness of the medium. Twitter is a conversation open to everybody. It democratises social media like no other platform. But the numbers are indeed demographically skewed. As a result, Twitter’s left-leaning politics is out of kilter with the society it purports to represent. Until the Daily Mail readers join the debate, Twitter will remain an unreliable barometer of public mood.

Pic credit: inckognito