Maria Schnabel

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Twitter becomes barometer of voter sentiment

How do you measure voter sentiment?  According to some major news organizations, through Twitter.

As we’ve seen this past week, main media is embracing Twitter as a way to keep a finger on the pulse of voter sentiment during the Republican debates.

Fox News, which coined the First Twitter Election term to refer to the 2012 election, began the week by encouraging viewers to share their thoughts during Monday’s republican debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

During the debate, an infographic on tracked the reaction to candidates’ responses according to the tweets posted after each question.

After the debate, Fox News analyzed Twitter sentiment over the candidates’ answers and dodges.

Other organizations are harnessing social media this electoral season. NBC News hosted a debate on Jan. 8 with Facebook on “Meet the Press.”  The Wall Street Journal also invited live blogging on its site for the Jan. 16 debate.

On Jan. 3, 2012, coinciding with the Iowa caucuses, The Washington Post launched @MentionMachine, an app that monitors and measures political candidate mentions on Twitter and on media across the Web.

Perhaps pointing to the perils of using social media as a true barometer of voter sentiment, a Jan. 21 snapshot (shown below) on @MentionMachine of the presidential candidates presence on Twitter and the media in general lists Ron Paul as receiving the most mentions.  Paul has not won any of the primaries.

“We are in the Model T Ford era of information systems,” according to Marc A. Smith  a sociologist who studies online communities and founded the Silicon-Valley-based Social Media Research Foundation, as reported by to the Los Angeles Times.

In the same Los Angeles Times story, Scott Keeter, president of the American Association of Public Opinion Research and director of survey research at the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, cautions journalists to “proceed with a degree of humility” when reporting on social media data. “Until we have more experience with real world outcomes, it’s hard to know the meaning of what we have captured from social media,” he added.

It may take a while for science to catch up to social media.  In the meantime, Twitter is likely to produce individual samples of voter sentiment, as does this tweet from Sarah Floerke of Austin, Tex.

“I’m not sure what is more entertaining…the candidate’s [sic] answers or the twitter activity.”

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