Journalism Politics Technology

Is Twitter “representative” of public opinion? Media gets it wrong.

Pew Internet Research put out an analysis of Twitter conversation and compared that to its own public opinion polling. The results of their analysis? From the headline, “Twitter Reaction to Events Often at Odds with Overall Public Opinion.”

Pew’s search and analysis parter, Crimson Hexagon, took a three-day sample of tweets which contained words or phrases relevant to a given hot-button news item and analyzed them for positive or negative terms as described in their methodology:

The data on Twitter comes from an analysis of all publicly available Tweets. The time period for each event varied, but none included more than three days worth of reaction. For each subject, multiple search terms were used to identify appropriate tweets. For example, to find messages commenting on President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Speech, Tweets were included if they appeared in the four hours following the start of his speech and used the words “state” and “union,” or “Obama,” or “SOTU.”

Unlike most human coding, CH does not measure each post as a unit, but examines the entire discussion in the aggregate. To do that, the algorithm breaks up all relevant texts into subsections. Rather than dividing each Tweet, paragraph, sentence or word, CH treats the “assertion” as the unit of measurement. If 40% of a story fits into one category, and 60% fits into another, the software will divide the text accordingly. Consequently, the results are not expressed in percent of Tweets, but rather the percent of assertions out of the entire body of stories identified by the original Boolean search terms.

But while we can argue about the efficacy of their methods (more on that later), the media seems to be willfully getting the results wrong. Check out a quick sample of the headlines:

Sample of conservative reactions by Twitterverse, at odds with the Daily Caller’s miopic understanding of reality. Source: Pew

This list even includes a majority of tech-savvy websites. The Daily Caller (ever the picture of reliable reportage) even took to interpreting the report as calling Twitter “a liberal, miopic, negative place.” This, despite the fact that the report clearly says that the Twitterverse occasionally breaks Conservative when public sentiment is Liberal. But there is a big difference between opinion on Twitter being “at odds” with general public opinion and not being a “reliable” indicator.

For a start, when 16% of Americans all share a common demographic bond – our affinity for Twitter – it should not be at all surprising that we share a common set of opinions. Neither should it be surprising that those opinions differ from a wider sample of the public.

Moreover, public opinion changes. It changes as people learn more about things and as facts present themselves. That very often takes more than three days for a lot of people. Twitter being heavily weighted to breaking news, tweeps have a tendency to be ahead of the curve.

We tweeps tend to “watch” the news unfold more or less together in real-time, so social reaction must also play its part. Twitter users have also been shown to be “influencers,” meaning we tend to voice our opinions to our friends more often than the average bear, you might say. It would be interesting to do the same sample, three days after a news break and then the following three days, to see if there is any change in the dichotomy between popular and Twitter sentiment.

But all of this presumes that Pew’s research is accurate. This is a very dicey affair, as indeed all public opinion polling is. But in this case, instead of speaking directly with tweeps, they’re using aggregation and analysis software to decide what is “positive” vs. “negative” or “conservative” vs. “liberal.” We are nowhere near a level of confidence in “Big Data” analysis of this type to consider this analysis anything other than hugely questionable.

The algorithms Crimson Hexagon uses would need to interpret tweets according to whether or not they’re really relevant to a given topic, whether the tweet was being sarcastic or some other form of humor, and whether the “negative” words are a function of genuine negativity or simple a reflection of language. Buffalo alone would be enough to give coders cold sweats, trying to interpret all that negativity.

And of course, it needs to be pointed out: Pew’s opinion polls do not reflect public sentiment any more accurately than Twitter, simply because Pew says they do. I am a big fan of Pew’s work – I cite it a lot, especially on (irony alert) Twitter. But by no means does this study reflect any kind of scientific fidelity.


U of R study weighs the costs of being in the “in crowd.”

We all put up with it in high school. And even if we don’t like to admit it and the game is slightly less obvious, many of us have experienced the peer pressure to exclude people from our social circles. If you felt bad about that, but did it anyway, you’re not alone.

And new research from the University of Rochester shows that going along with the group in these cases really does have a negative impact on you. Much beyond the hurt inflicted on the one ostracized from the group, the group itself pays a price:

Consistent with earlier research on ostracism, the study found that being shunned, even by faceless strangers in a computer game, was upsetting and lowered participant’s mood. “Although there are no visible scars, ostracism has been shown to activate the same neural pathways as physical pain,” says Ryan. But complying with instructions to exclude others was equally disheartening, the data shows, albeit for different reasons. This study suggests that the psychological costs of rejecting others is linked primarily to the thwarting of autonomy and relatedness.

So, based on their research, this social ostracism pain is two-pronged. The first is the natural impulse of human animals to be connected to one another, and the second is the lack of autonomy that happens when we bend our will to meet social demands.

This research has important implications for a variety of social situations, but in particular, it bears on bullying. Because a bully never bullies in private. They never bully just the victim. As many of us have experienced in our past, this study now proves: the bully also beats on his “friends” who join in or do nothing.


U of R boffin analyzes cool, kills Schrodinger’s cat in the process

For those of you who are not quantum physics enthusiasts or fans of The Big Bang Theory, Schrodinger’s Cat is a thought experiment. To be clear: no cats were harmed in the making of this metaphor.

As a means of explaining the complex characteristics of subatomic particles and their various states, Schrodinger proposed to Einstein that if you put a cat inside a sealed box whose fate rests on the state of a subatomic particle, the cat could be thought of as being both dead and alive so long as the box remained sealed. There is no way to know what the cat’s fate is without peering inside the box. [1. We presume that there were air holes in the box.. somewhere. Perhaps on the bottom. Because otherwise, the fate of Shrodinger’s cat would have been very obvious, indeed.]

More importantly, quantum mechanics tells us that the cat does exist in both states while the box is closed. Opening the box forces reality – according to some theories – to coalesce around a single definition, leaving all other states to disappear.

And while its doubtful that either Shrodinger or Einstein would have applied the same thought experiment to “cool,” I think it an apt metaphor. Because the one thing everybody who is or would like to think themselves as “cool” tends to eschew on pain of death is…  definition. Clearly, this particular researcher did not get the memo:

“James Dean is no longer the epitome of cool,” Dar-Nimrod said. “The much darker version of what coolness is still there, but it is not the main focus. The main thing is: Do I like this person? Is this person nice to people, attractive, confident and successful? That’s cool today, at least among young mainstream individuals.”

No, James Dean is not the epitome of cool, but that’s doubtless because James Dean is dead. Like, not Shrodinger’s Cat dead. Just dead. 67 years dead and counting.

But “cool” also predates James Dean, nor is James Dean its only model. The original model of “cool,” would, if history is any guide, be considerably darker-skinned, for a start.

It is a term that means many things – and nothing – from whether a person is “cool” as a state of being, to whether a person is “cool” as a social queue. If you’re passing a joint at a concert and say, “don’t worry, that guy’s cool,” you don’t mean that he’s “attractive, confident and successful,” but you also don’t mean he looks like a 2/3 century dead teenager. You mean he’s fine to pass the joint to.[2. Also, god help you if you’re in a band and your friends tell you the show was “pretty cool.” Kiss of death, that.]

“Cool” is contextual, ephemeral and esoteric. Its also nowhere near as complex as any of those words. And unfortunately for this researcher, a passing glance at the results of his research prove that there are Shrodinger’s Cat experiments which will never fail in the end to kill that cat deader than a door nail every. goddamned. time.


Study suggests famine can affect the ratio of boys and girls born to a population

A sociological study of the famine that happened during China’s Great Leap Forward suggests that, like many other species, humans modify their birth rates to reflect times of feast or famine. Specifically, more girls are born in starving communities than boys.

This and other types of environmentally based birth modifications have been observed elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Alligator offspring’s sex are determined by the temperature of the environment just prior to birth. Studies also show that “handedness” – whether you predominantly use your left or right hand – can be affected by stress on the mother prior to birth. But this is the first indication that such modifications happen on a large-scale based on poverty of resources. That a community-wide change can be observed in time of poverty has huge implications for social science.

The report does not have a definite conclusion as to why the disparity in gender production. But one possibility suggested is that, since malnourished males produce less offspring than comparably malnourished females, this may be nature’s way of maintaining the continuation of the species.