How accurately does Twitter reflect the national zeitgeist?
When it comes to political events and policy decisions, Twitter and opinion polls paint two very different pictures of the United States.
Pew Research Center's year-long study compared the results of national polls to the tone of tweets in response to eight major news events,
including the outcome of the presidential election, the first presidential debate and major speeches by Barack Obama.
At times, the Twitter conversation was more liberal than survey responses, while at other times, it was more conservative, according to Michael Dimock, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Often, however, it was just the overall negativity that stood out for Dimock.
Much of that difference can be attributed to "the narrow demographic of the public represented on Twitter," notes Pew, as well as who partakes in the conversation.
In one case, when Obama won the election last November, the post-election conversation on Twitter was very positive about his victory. The analysis showed an overwhelming
majority (77%) of post-election Twitter comments about the outcome were positive about Obama’s victory, while just 23% were negative.
Yet, one survey of voters in the days following the election found more mixed reactions to the election outcome, as 52% said they were happy about Obama’s reelection, while 45% were unhappy.
Still, the overall negativity on Twitter over the course of the presidential campaign stood out. For both candidates, negative comments exceeded positive comments by a wide margin throughout the fall campaign season. From September through November, however, Romney was consistently the target of more negative reactions than was Obama.
Why does Twitter portray national sentiment so differently than survey polls?
It reflects the fact that those who get news on Twitter -- and particularly those who tweet news -- are very different demographically from the public, according to Pew.
The overall reach of Twitter is modest. In the Pew Research Center’s 2012 biennial news consumption survey, just 13% of adults said they ever use Twitter or read Twitter messages, while a mere 3% said they regularly or sometimes tweeted or retweeted news or news headlines on Twitter.
Twitter users are also considerably younger than the general public and more likely to be Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party.
In the 2012 news consumption survey, half of adults who said they posted news on Twitter were younger than 30, compared with 23% of all adults. Some 57% of those who posted news on Twitter were either Democrats or leaned Democratic, compared with 46% of the general public.