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


  1. "In other words, almost three times as many yes campaigners than no campaigners" - up to a point but the nature of trolling means that a lot of negative comments were tagged yes2av....

    And to quote Milo on the "hegemony of the Left"?! Surely in context of the tory/neoliberal dominance of MSM and the terms of public debate such a comment should be challenged or laughed at.

  2. Yiannopoulos writes to provoke, but it's a commonly held view that Twitter is left-leaning. I take your point about trolling, but the sample is large (if not diverse) enough to make the point: almost 3:1 in favour on twitter; almost 3:1 against at the polls.

    Personally I think Twitter provides a healthy balance to what you call the Tory dominance of MSM. I just don't believe it makes for a very accurate political barometer.

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  4. Thanks for the Twitter contributions David. Twitter still has some way to go on representative samples of all adults especially for political polls (ICM got predicted the result exactly using traditional research) but it may well be a better real time predictor of future events (such as stock markets) when analysing the views of a specific community (such as stock market investors).

  5. Thanks Paul. Agreed. Although the more people that use it as a real-time market prediction service, the more share price movements will start to become a self-fulfilling prophecy...

    Has Twitter gone mainstream? Yes if you look purely at MSM saturation, no in terms of breadth of demographic coverage. It's a mass media platform with a very narrow political voice


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