Read through this article with the recent Pew Research Center study on public opinion and Twitter in hand. While this is a positive perspective on the potential of Twitter to measure the pulse of public opinion, I think it confirms that Twitter is much more reactive than predictive. Does that mean Twitter is useless as a tool to gauge, or more important, shape public opinion? Not as long as you keep its limitations in mind, that Twitter is more a lightening strike in time versus the snapshot ascribed to polls and surveys. Like lightening, Twitter in highly unpredictable.
It seems intuitive that a person's Facebook "likes" would tell you something about the person. What caught my eye was what this piece says about how much we can learn about A LOT of people by running programs like this across a social media platform.
As the author points out, the key to effective communication is knowing your audience. It is also the key to serving up exactly the information people want to hear. And when you can run this kind of program against all the other data that is scooped from our online activities, you have incredibly powerful tools for shaping public opinion.
The reaction on Twitter to major political events and policy decisions often differs a great deal from public opinion as measured by surveys. This is the conclusion of a year-long Pew Research Center study that 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 is more liberal than survey responses, while at other times it is more conservative. Often it is the overall negativity that stands out. Much of the difference may have to do with both the narrow sliver of the public represented on Twitter as well as who among that slice chose to take part in any one conversation....
This is a groundbreaking study in understanding how social media, and Twitter in particular, might impact public opinion. I think many of us in communication would have assumed that the Twitter-verse is younger and leans more Democratic. Therefore it is not surprising that the trending on any given topic on Twitter would not always mirror public opinion.
However, the researchers were also able to dig up a number of other interesting factors that contribute to the disconnect between Twitterites and the general public. One is simply numbers: there are far fewer people on Twitter relative to the voting public as a whole. Twitter also reaches beyond voters to people under the age of 18, non-U.S. citizens and others. It is also clear that Twitter records nearly instant reaction to a given issue without the benefit of the further reflection. Reactionary might be the right word.
The question I have is how much do these knee-jerk pronouncements on Twitter actually shape public opinion. One might suggest "not a lot" based on this study.
The Atlantic 4 Signs the Vietnamese Government Is Crushing the Country's 'Social Media ... The Atlantic Vietnamese bloggers tasted internet freedom over the last decade as online access grew, but social media is no game changer in a paranoid state.
Steve Miller's insight:
Now for a completely different perspective on the use of digital media to shape public opinion. Oppressive governments have always used the tools of communication to quash dissent and sell their vision of social harmony. Here we learn how well the Vietnamese government is hijacking digital communication for the same purpose. One particularly insightful line read:
"The manipulation of opinion is effective and will likely continue as the Party uses not more sophisticated technology, but rather more believable influencers: Those able to convey a modern and 'everyman' personality behind the avatar."
An estimated 1,000 pro-government bloggers regularly crowd the Vietnamese blogosphere with praise for official policy and harsh criticism for those who don't toe the line. And if that doesn't work, those labeled "inconvenient thinkers" are arrested and put on show trial as an example to anyone else inclined to speak up.
Just when we started cheering stories about the use of social media as a catalyst for the spread of democracy, we read stories like this one. And bringing this back to America, we must ask ourselves how often government or public relations crosses the line between information and manipulation?
The Twitter hacks by the Syrian Electronic Army – the most recent hit The Guardian – reflect a shift toward disseminating propaganda and attacking Syria’s perceived enemies in the media.
Steve Miller's insight:
Is it easier to manipulate public opinion with digital or traditional media? I keep adding information to this thread in hopes of answering this question. At present, I believe using them both is most effective, but digital is gaining quickly on its older cousin.
It's recently been revealed that the U.S. government contracted HBGary Federal for the development of software which could create multiple fake social media profiles to manipulate and sway public opinion on controversial issues by promoting propaganda. It could also be used as surveillance to find public opinions with points of view the powers-that-be didn't like. It could then potentially have their "fake" people run smear campaigns against those "real" people. As disturbing as this is, it's not really new for U.S. intelligence or private intelligence firms to do the dirty work behind closed doors.
Wow, see the article on manipulation of public opinion by the Vietnamese government through social media elsewhere on this page. I pointed out that what the Vietnamese government is doing is a prime example of how these powerful, new communication tools can be misused. This may sound naive, but I never imagined that the U.S. government might be using some of the same tactics.
Here's a question: Can truth prevail even if government institutions, major corporations and other well-funded organizations pull the levers of digital communication?
To drag the G.O.P. into the 21st century, young, tech-savvy dissidents may have to overthrow their party’s disconnected old guard.
Steve Miller's insight:
Can a political campaign, multi-national corporation, NGO or any other major organization use new media to essentially go around the mainstream news media and shape public opinion in ways never thought possible? That's the question I and my colleagues asked ourselves after reading through this exceptional analysis of the use of new media by Obama and the Republicans during the past two presidential campaigns.
As a Democrat, I couldn't help but rub my hands together in glee as I read how the Republicans have so thoroughly been out maneuvered on digital media. As a communicator and dedicated student of the First Amendment, however, my reaction was a little different. Those who understand how to use these powerful new communication tools have found that it is easier than ever to spoon feed people exactly the information they most want to read (and believe). This appears to be particularly true when communicating to a younger demographic that long ago stopped reading newspapers, watching the Sunday-morning news shows, or attending a debate. The mantra of social media is, "Give me what I want, when I want it, and keep it short!"
Thanks to the ever more sophisticated algorithms, this process of self-selection can and does happen without people even knowing information is being tailored to their interests. See Eli Pariser's work on "filter bubbles" for more insight on this development.
So what does this all mean to the wide variety of thought, comment and opinion so essential to the marketplace of ideas and a robust democracy?
A new survey by Pew Research Center reveals that relying on Twitter to gauge public opinion might not be too smart: the reaction on Twitter to big national and political news seems to differ wildly from that measured by surveys.
This post from Gizmodo clearly parallels my initial reaction to the Pew Research Center's study on Twitter and public opinion posted elsewhere on this page. One additional observation the author makes is how, in general, Twitter comments are more negative than positive. I used the term "knee-jerk;" another could be "vent." When people can say whatever they want, especially bunkered down behind their computer monitors, civility often goes by the wayside.
So does this mean one should plan for more rough and tumble messaging to successfully advance a particular interest on Twitter? Or at the very least, should we be prepared to be treated roughly?
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