News Column

Twitter: New Frontier of Polling

Oct. 22, 2012

Mark McGuire and Jimmy Vielkind


Do not try to use TweetDeck -- the platform that automatically updates Twitter feeds -- to follow Monday night's final presidential debate. The individual tweets will blink by so fast it will be like trying to read the rapidly cascading numbers and symbols in "The Matrix." Too much information, too much chatter.

The question on the eve of the third presidential debate is whether all that back-and-forth matters when it comes to presidential or other elections.

"We are all going, 'How are we are going to measure this?'" said Donald P. Levy, director of the Siena Research Institute. "It's the new frontier for us."

Efforts are ongoing to improve the measurement of social media discourse and parse what it all means. But as of yet there is no proof these virtual conversations/dueling soapboxes have any direct impact at the polls.

"There is no empirical evidence in terms of the political realm that Facebook postings or tweets convince people to vote for Candidate A over Candidate B," said Richard F. Hanley, an associate professor of journalism who specializes in social media at Quinnipiac University. "They act as reinforcing mechanisms."

In the past 18 months measurements have been developed to quantify social media posts -- in volume and word clouds and Facebook likes and dislikes. (The technology is also being used more and more by business.) "Tweets per minute" articles and "top-tweeted moments" of political events have become de rigueur stories of the election cycle.

But it's much harder to gauge what kind of impact all these words will have come Election Day, and what relation the online conversation has to the overall electorate.

The consensus: Not much, if at all. That's because people who use social media are not a representative sample of the general population.

"Fifteen percent of adult Americans are on Twitter. It's self-selecting -- it's not everybody in the country who's on there," said Tom Rosenstiel, founder and director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "And it's only a sliver of a people who are on Twitter who are going to remark on a specific event."

Further, virtual friends and people followed are often those who share like interests, creating a narrow window of opinion. And social media users claim they are not likely to be moved by social media commentary, at least when it comes to presidential politics.

While it may not affect voting, social media certainly influences the political process. The Occupy movement in the United States as well as political revolutions last year in the Middle East showed the power social media networks have in organizing grass roots action. And political campaign consultants see social media as another vehicle for pushing out a message.

They've made sure to maintain an online presence since the middle of the last decade, but it was the 2008 election of President Barack Obama when social media catapulted onto the map for campaigns, according to Doug Forand, a Democratic campaign consultant. But it's a tricky beast.

"Just having a presence on Facebook or having a Twitter account doesn't, in and of itself, do much for it," said Forand, a partner in the firm Red Horse Strategies. "It's the opposite of 'Field of Dreams:' If you build it, they won't come. You have to bring people into your network."

Once they're sucked in, it's a cheap way to send updates and keep up energy.

Bill O'Reilly, a partner in the Republican-leaning firm NLO Strategies, agreed that social media is not a "miracle weapon."

"It's good for reaching allies and people already in the fold of a campaign," he said. "I don't think it massively changes campaigns -- I think it's just another delivery vehicle for information. The most important thing is still the messaging."

That said, O'Reilly, 49, wouldn't use social media to test issues or positions. Forand said one's digital network could be a very hollow "echo chamber." But if something is viral on Facebook -- like the Susan G. Komen Foundation's decision to stop sending money to Planned Parenthood -- it's indicative of widespread interest and helps make an issue leap "from social media to traditional media," Forand said.

Most elected officials, too, said they use social media to talk more than listen. State Sen. Kemp Hannon, a 66-year-old Republican from Long Island, has always been at the digital forefront in the generally non-digital Senate, developing his own website when he was unhappy with the chamber's basic template.

He said he uses his Facebook page as a "supplement" to those efforts, but rarely engages in discussion.

"A lot of times we cross-reference things that are buried in the state's websites," he said. "If I had a chance that I could get rid of sock puppets and pseudonyms, I would be much more inclined to do an online interchange on policy."

On the flip side, he has curated his Twitter feed to become "my personal AP newswire" by following select journalists, officials and health policy centers as well as sources about camera technology -- a personal hobby.

Albany Common Councilwoman Leah Golby, 44, first took to Twitter in her 2010 effort to spare city bathhouses from budget cuts.

"I started a hashtag!" she said. "I think it's a tool and it can be used to drive the needle, but I haven't seen it done on the local level. I've definitely seen organizing both on Facebook and Twitter on the local level. I don't think that people's opinions on Facebook or Twitter alone have influenced my votes, but people's opinions do influence my vote, and it absolutely contributes to the puzzle."

Source: (c)2012 Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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