Is Twindex the Future of Opinion Polling?

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Twindex tells you which presidential candidate is trending up, and who is trending down, according to the world’s Tweets!

UPDATE 11/12/12: 31 million Tweets later, Election Day 2012 has come to a close. So how did Twindex fair in the election? At the end of the day on November 6th, President Obama had a Twindex score of  74 and Governor Romney trailed behind at 59. The next day, on the 7th, President Obama’s score jumped to 85, while Governor Romney was down to 57.

As Venture Beat reported on Election Day, President Obama had consistently higher sentiment ratings on Twitter over the past year, which might be related to the fact that he has five times as many Twitter followers as Romney: 10 million to 1.7 million.

Although Twindex may not be the best tool for predicting the outcome of the election (clearly Nate Silver trumps all), “mention-tracking” proved to be a useful way to gage the dialogue and conversations happening around the race.

It looks like Twitter may be entering into public opinion polling, disrupting the monopoly of longtime giant Gallup Polling. This week, Twitter announced the launch of its own Political Index (Twindex for short): ”a daily measurement of Twitter users’ feelings towards the presidential candidates, as expressed in nearly two million Tweets each week,” explains Adam Sharp, Head of Government, News and Social Innovation at Twitter.

So how will it work, and will Twindex be as accurate in predicting the outcome ofthe US presidential elections as Gallup has been in the past?

Every day Twitter will evaluate the sentiment of tweets mentioning President Obama and Governor Romney relative to every other tweet that passes through the system. This data will then be used to calculate scores for both candidates; a score of 34 for President Obama means that tweets about him are more positive than 34 percent of all other messages on Twitter.

With more and more political talk happening online, Twitter, with the help of data analyst Topsy and polling firms Mellman and NorthStar (left-leaning and conservative, respectively), has found a way to extract some meaning from those conversations and share this information with prospective voters every single day (Twindex will be updated every day at 8pm ET). More importantly, as Wired reports, the index’s daily numbers actually track very closely with the Gallup approval rating polling data, and where there are divergences, the data reveals interesting insights says Sharp:

If the dials are pointing in different directions, people are saying one thing to pollsters, and another in conversation. That is where the Twitter index is providing a real service to journalists, because it’s where we are saying we don’t have a complete picture, and need to be asking better questions.

Frank Newport, Editor-in-Chief of the Gallup Polls says there’s a caveat to keep in mind when it comes to the Twindex analysis:

Twitter users, 140 million worldwide, aren’t a representative sample of the general population — for instance, they tend to be younger and, obviously, more technologically savvy. My concern is, who are these people? I don’t think anyone has figured out whether it’s truly useful.

Newport makes a good point, but on the other side of the aisle, Gallup certainly doesn’t represent the younger population who, despite making up nearly 25% of the entire electorate in 2012, are historically unengaged in politics.

From Klout scores to Twindex scores, algorithms like these are designed to mine big data for patterns and spit out a simplified numerical value, and the question, as always, is whether this value will translate into useful information. When you think about what people write and share on Twitter, entering hashtag discussions, retweeting and posting links to news articles, I do think Twitter is the best place to measure the engagement of the signed-in portion of the general population. And even if that is only twenty-Five percent, it’s a great start.

It will only work, however, if Twitter is seen simply as a platform, disengaged from, and disinterested in, the information passing through it. If Twitter interferes, actively monitoring speech and blocking accounts (like they did with the NBC-Guy Adams saga), users will lose trust and this grand experiment will fall apart.

About Sona Makker

Sona is a first-year law student studying technology law at Santa Clara University. She’s an advocate for online privacy, digital rights, and public access to the public domain. If she’s not arguing with her siblings over whether This American Life is better than Radiolab, you’ll probably find her whipping up vegetarian dishes, or attempting to do a headstand in yoga class.
Posted in: Election, Internet, Social Media, Tech and Environment