Just the beginning of using social media to study political and social beliefs and behaviors

As the 2012 election nears, here is an overview of where we stand in using social media to understand people’s political and social beliefs and behaviors:

Marc A. Smith, a sociologist who studies online communities and founded the Silicon Valley-based Social Media Research Foundation, said “we are in the Model T Ford era of information systems” and analyzing their content.

Scott Keeter, the president of the American Assn. of Public Opinion Research, said that members of the professional organization and journalists should “proceed with a degree of humility” in deciding what social media can tell us about political campaigns. “Until we have more experience with real world outcomes, it’s hard to know the meaning of what we have captured from social media,” said Keeter, director of survey research at the Washington-based Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Much of the debate followed a Jan. 12 article by Politico, the online news site, which reported that it had partnered with Facebook to examine all “posting, sharing and linking about candidates” from Dec. 12 to Jan. 10. The arrangement was a first not only in that Facebook delved into both public and private messages but also used computer analysis to “identify positive and negative emotion in text.” (The company stressed that while computers draw an aggregate view of user sentiment, human beings do not monitor individual messages.)

Facebook said it employed a “well-validated software tool used frequently in social psychological research.” But Smith said he was “highly skeptical” of some of the precise findings in the Facebook analysis. He added that the intellectual disciplines focused on deciphering texts — natural language processing and computational linguistics — “are very deep and can do remarkable things, but they don’t necessarily have the ability to predict the next president of the United States of America.”

A few thoughts:

1. I like the urge to be cautious: too many news outlets jump on relatively small and meaningless events in the realm of social media and try to draw big conclusions. For example, the size of a Facebook group doesn’t say much. Similarly, I am still surprised by the number of media outlets that show the results of unofficial (and often low-count) poll results (though they now say they are not scientific results).

2. While being cautious is good now, it does suggest that this is a burgeoning area with lots of potential. The researchers who develop good methodologies and get access to specific or unique data will get a lot of attention. I wonder how much companies like Facebook really want to contribute to social science research as opposed to using their data to make money.

3. The counts of positive and negative feelings seem fairly unhelpful to me. For example, what does tracking the emotions of the world through tweets really tell us? Another example from the offline realm: “how the Bible feels.” This is where we need more than just descriptive research.

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