Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Social Media as Public Opinion

I wrote Monday and Tuesday about the promise and problems of using Twitter as a measure of public opinion.  See those posts for a semi-detailed discussion of why it works and why it doesn't work, especially when it comes to the dangers for journalists tempted to use social media as a gauge of what people think.

But the politicians, they're already there.

According to a new study (full pdf here), nearly 64 percent of congressional offices consider Facebook and 42 percent consider Twitter as "somewhat important" or "very important" measures of public opinion. That's the soundbite, but like all soundbites it's misleading.  Let's dig a bit deeper.
  • While 64 percent think Facebook is "somewhat" or "very" important, only 8 percent call it "very important" as a tool for "understanding constituents' views and opinions."  Only 8 percent.  The "somewhat" is a catch-all category, one people fall into almost by default.  Also, I cannot easily find what the other response alternatives were, though I suspect they were "somewhat unimportant" and "not at all important."  That would be standard.
  • And while 42 percent think Twitter is "somewhat" or "very" important, only 4 percent think it is "very important" as a gauge.
  • By comparison, 13 percent of respondents thought "paper surveys/polls" were very important and another 55 percent thought traditional polls were "somewhat important."
  • Even so questionable a measure of public opinion as online polls received higher marks than social media.  Seven percent said online polls (slops) were very important, and 47 percent said they were somewhat important.  
The takeaway?   As my earlier posts discuss in more detail, Twitter has a lot of promise as a measure of public opinion, especially as we classically define it.  But as a comparison to traditional, scientific polling and modern definitions of public opinion, Twitter and Facebook and other social media fall far short.  At the moment, social media are just another tool, not unlike phone calls and letters to congressional offices, a way to take the pulse of a highly selective public.

So congressional staffers, and journalists, need to take care in how they interpret such data, even as we become more sophisticated in our methods of analyzing thousands and even millions of tweets. 

No comments: