Many of us are looking to social media to tell us who will win the US presidential election, but we can't rely on Twitter to predict the outcome.
Why not? First, Twitter users en masse are not a representative sample of registered or likely voters. Second, voters' views of candidates tend to be cumulative; tweet sentiments, reactive and time sensitive as they are, don't accurately reflect that. Third, voters are getting information about each candidate and his campaign through reactive “filter bubbles” that affect the way they perceive behavior and issues.
I turn to the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, the well-known scholar who coined the terms “the medium is the message” and “global village,” for insight on how we should view online communications in this election. Were McLuhan alive today, he would likely call Twitter a “hot medium” because it limits communications to 140 characters and takes almost no effort to consume or react to. Other forms of media, like TV or cable programming (where most viewers catch the presidential debates), are much colder, in McLuhan's terminology, because they require more effort to understand and summarize.
In addition, text-oriented and visual-based social media channels (Twitter being the former) involve different processing areas of the human brain, as discussed in this piece. Consider this in context of research from the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, showing that a woman's brain has a larger corpus callosum than a man's, which means women can transfer data between their right and left hemispheres faster than men. This makes women voters able to process visual information more quickly then their male counterparts.
I believe women, as well as minorities, will determine the election -- however, Twitter will not allow a full expression of their sentiments because of its hot and textual nature, as well as its message-size limitation.
As a result, I place more weight on the opinions expressed in blogs and on Facebook than in tweets. They take more effort to understand, are more selective, and are less likely to be the knee-jerk sentiments of the highly reactive and skewed Twitter audience. In fact, many have challenged the accuracy of the sentiments expressed in social media mentions, and that is no less true about tweets on the presidential election, according to Journalism.org.
Understanding the meaning of face-to-face conversations in English is difficult enough, without getting into highly polarized and political conversations around presidential politics. And what about the difficulty of processing sentiment expressed in multiple languages, lexicons, and slang words? This level of balanced messaging is much harder to do in the interpretive realm of social media, where individuals often use the same words to say different things and where visual cues to help provide context are missing -- save for an emoticon or two.
And to my earlier point about minorities -- election watchers widely believe that the Hispanic vote will be a large factor in the race's outcome, yet most Twitter analyses examine English verbatim comments only. To test this notion, I ran a quick analysis of tweets from the time of the first debate. I used Marketwire's Sysomos platform, which delivered results based almost entirely from tweets in English. Clearly, the large Hispanic vote has not been expressed or amplified in the main Twitter streams around the debates, which provides yet another reason to discount Twitter as a predictive tool around national elections.
When we add the filter bubble concept to our witches’ brew of communications, we have even more to worry about in regards to getting an accurate view of the presidential candidates and their positions from Twitter.
As modern communications become increasingly fragmented and pre-processed, the messaging across mainstream, search engines, and social media has fallen into highly polarized filter bubbles that provide self-sustaining social segmentation and validation viewpoints for whatever voters choose to believe, as this Nieman Journalism Lab post discusses. Because of the filter bubble (only the fragments of information that match the filter bubble get amplified), we see reality through rose-colored glasses.
It’s almost impossible to reason someone out of his or her own self-validated perceptions, regardless of evidence to the contrary.
Hot topics for this election, including the economy, healthcare reform, Iran, marriage equality, immigration, and Social Security reform, will look much different to voters depending on the filter bubble in which they live. The result is an ungovernable state of affairs that has the two parties demonizing each other and obfuscating the issues.
Meanwhile, moderate and undecided voters, who will likely tilt the election one way or the other, end up hostages of the online opinion war -- especially if they live in a battleground state such as Ohio or Florida. Monitoring Twitter users in such states is complicated because the majority don’t yet share location data, making any attempt to gauge state-level or district-level outcomes inaccurate. Most Twitter analyses of voter mindset look at national sentiment, even though the election will likely be decided at the lower levels.
It’s entirely possible that Twitter filter bubbles, which only report the intensity of messaging within them, rather than the actual views of the voting public, will skew the monitoring tools for gauging electorate viewpoints around the presidential debates. What's more, since we have no established way to design and operate social media monitoring platforms for accurate results, or even to decide on what accurate results look like (a subject I cover in depth in my book), social media monitoring is particularly unreliable when predicting elections.
And so I argue against Twitter as a presidential predictor. While Twitter can augment what we know about the voting public that expresses itself online, we must not make the mistake of using it as an accurate predictor of the electorates’ vote, or as a replacement for more traditional (and much colder, according to McLuhan) market research tools like surveys and phone polling.
Do you trust Twitter's presidential predictions? Read Pierre DeBois' Point, take our quick poll, at right, and share your thoughts on the message boards.