Brands looking to measure public opinion by reading Twitter tea leaves should take heed of a Pew Research report, which finds that Twitter sentiment is often very different from public opinion as measured by surveys.
Pew compared the result 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.
While Twitter tends to be more liberal than survey responses, sometimes it's more conservative, says Pew.
The researchers add: "Often it is the overall negativity that stands out."
Typical Twitter user (right).
Researchers surmise that the difference between Twitter and surveys might have to do with "the narrow sliver of the public represented on Twitter," and the portion of Twitter users participating in any given conversation. Just 13 percent of adults have ever used Twitter, and only 3 percent say they regularly or sometimes tweet or retweet news or news headlines, according to Pew. Twitter users are considerably younger than the general public, and more likely to be Democrats.
In some instances, the Twitter reaction was more pro-Democratic or liberal than the balance of public opinion. For instance, when a federal court ruled last February that a California law banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional -- a case that is now coming before the Supreme Court -- the reaction on Twitter was quite positive. Twitter conversations about the ruling were much more positive than negative (46 percent versus 8 percent). But public opinion, as measured in a national poll, ran the other direction: Of those who had heard about the ruling, just 33 percent were very happy or pleased with it, while 44 percent were disappointed or angry.
Twitter skewed more pro-Obama during the election and its aftermath, when compared with the general population.
But: "For both candidates, negative comments exceeded positive comments by a wide margin throughout the fall campaign season." However, from September to November, Mitt Romney received more negative reactions than Obama.
Twitter doesn't always lean to the left. Twitter's reaction to Obama's second inaugural address and his 2012 State of the Union was less positive than public opinion.
The events being looked at by Pew were, of course, political rather than business-related. Still, any skew in Twitter sentiment has strong implications for brands looking to social media as a barometer of public opinion.
But it's unclear what those implications are. How does knowing that Twitter leans liberal help someone who's selling shampoo or factory equipment?
Pew's conclusion that people are more contentious on Twitter has a more clear-cut implication for brands. It means that if a bazillion people are complaining about your product on Twitter, it might not be such a big deal in the real world. Marketers need to think before they jump into a Twitter controversy and possibly make it worse, when the controversy itself might not be a big deal.
Another open question in the study: How does sentiment on Facebook and other social media compare with Twitter?
By the way, Internet Evolution is on Twitter. Follow us here: @NetEvolution. We're politically neutral, and not grouchy at all.
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-- Mitch Wagner , Editor in Chief, Internet Evolution