Every four years, there’s something besides the Olympics that people can’t seem to get enough of: the presidential election. It’s the one major event that turns regular people into newshounds and political junkies. Here in the information age, cable news outlets, bloggers, and social media sites alike are racing to have the latest word in all things election.
And Twitter just won.
Meet the “Twitter Political Index,” a joint effort between Twitter, real-time search engine Topsy, and two polling firms, one from each side of the aisle. The index calculates how the Twitterverse feels about President Obama and Mitt Romney every second of the day. This isn’t some unsophisticated little graph based on a few keywords; Topsy literally reads every single tweet as they appear, filters the ones that are about either candidate, and then determines if each tweet is positive or negative. Not only that, it also assigns the tweet a value based on the degree of positivity or negativity.
This method of employing machines to derive the sentiment of a piece of writing – appropriately called sentiment analysis – isn’t an exact science, but Topsy has an impressive 90% rate of agreement with humans reading the same tweets.
Like traditional phone-based polling, the TPI isn’t perfect. Collecting data from Twitter requires relying on self-reported demographics, and the sentiments recorded not from specifically US voters, but from everyone in the world who tweets. Additionally, Twitter is much more young (and liberal) than the general population, which means it’s hardly a random sample. But while it may lack in delivering exceedingly above average statistical significance, it excels at offering a new and interesting look at a younger demographic that often is not accounted for in phone polls.
Will the TPI be able to predict the election, or provide political scientists and junkies alike meaningful information? We won’t know until November. But no matter what the index provides, it’s certainly an impressive new aggregation of public opinion.