People on Twitter are different – at least in their political opinions

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obama(Screenshot: Twitter, hashtag „#obama“)

What happened?

Being a user of Twitter myself, I love browsing the endless hashtags that define the mircoblogging service. The hashtags – a handy way to mark topics, e.g. “#politicalscience – provide a way into every topic imaginable, from the latest football game over grumpy cats and also to political discussion.

However, as the Pew Research Center found, these political discussions are not representative of the wider population and the opinions are often skewed.

What do I think about this?

Twitter not being representative of, well, anything, does not come as a surprise. Even though the service is flooded with new messages every second, only a small fraction of the population is on Twitter, and lots of the accounts are actually dead or have never been used at all. Apart from that, Twitter, according to Pew, seems to be a medium of the young, not unlike many other social networking sites like Facebook or Google+.

So, no surprise here that opinions on political issues and events are skewed in a certain direction. But what struck me is that opinion on Twitter is often negative when it comes to politics.

The Pew Internet Institute researched eight major political events (mostly revolving around the US presidential election) and analysed the “tone” of the messages using an automated method. Of course one can question this approach since automated research is often full of mistakes. However, I think this is a viable approach when considering that their sample consisted of thousands of tweets, and I think that an overall “tone” can very well be assessed like this.

So, why is political opinion on Twitter skewed in a negative way?

The answers are still out there, but first of all, my guess would be that Twitter is often used as a means to vent – “I dislike this, I dislike that”. The fact that it is very easy to set up an account and type a few words (after all, there is a strict character limit) that one may not think completely through does not help the matter.

Apart from that, one has to look at the context of the study, which was the US presidential election. This was a highly contested topic, even in the traditional media, and negative “news” about candidates is widely utilised in the US. So, one could ask if the sample was biased in the first place. People also tweet from local events with local politicians who do not polarise nearly as much. Maybe a comparison with other events, e.g. from local or regional elections, would show a different picture.


So, believe it or not, Twitter is actually not only a place for telling the world about what one had for dinner, but also to discuss political issues. I know what I’m talking about because sometimes I am part of these discussions. It’s not only fun, but it is also a good way to immediately see what other people are thinking on a certain topic.

I know from personal experience that politics and political events are not only seen negative by the people on Twitter. I follow quite a few highly active people who talk about politics most of the time, and their views are balanced (see Jon Worth or Twitter’s residential dragon fairy Puffles).

In sum, I think that Pew’s study is very interesting in pointing out what role Twitter can play in politics, but I also think that a wider study would be needed here.
If I only had the time… :)



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