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Pew: Twitter Not Always a Reliable Barometer of Broader Public Opinion

Cross-posted from e.politics

Originally posted on March 5, 2013

The Pew Research Center has a study out this week that should confirm what a lot of us have felt when people have tried to use the tone of social media coverage to gauge public opinion. Their top-line findings:

The reaction on Twitter to major political events and policy decisions often differs a great deal from public opinion as measured by surveys….

At times the Twitter conversation is more liberal than survey responses, while at other times it is more conservative. Often it is the overall negativity that stands out. Much of the difference may have to do with both the narrow sliver of the public represented on Twitter as well as who among that slice chose to take part in any one conversation.

Not mentioned at all: the fact that many political communicators CONSCIOUSLY try to skew the conversation on Twitter in our favor, in part to influence journalists and bloggers looking to Twitter to see how a speech or policy proposal is going over. Twitter simply isn’t a mass medium in the way that Facebook has become; only a small fraction of Americans (and a different fraction with each issue) are going to engage on Twitter. To quote Pew again:

Overall, 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.

So no really big surprises here: Twitter doesn’t represent American opinion any more than, say, the Sunday morning political talk shows or CNN do. But that doesn’t mean it’s a waste of time to try to shape the tweeted consensus, any more than it’s a waste of time to get your spokesperson on MSNBC, Fox or Meet the Press — just take the results with a large grain of salt.

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