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In Twitter We Trust: Can Social Media Sway Voters?


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. There it was in big, bold type on the Fox News website, how Twitter may have tipped the election for Romney. A column written by Juan Williams, who points out that Twitter reported there were, quote, a whopping 10.3 million tweets during the first debate, unquote.

Well, whether Twitter may have tipped the election for Romney remains to be seen, but what is apparent is that with just a few days left until Americans head to the polls, campaigns for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are not slowing down, especially online.

According to the latest estimates, two out of three Americans use Facebook, Twitter or some other form of social media on a daily basis. Those sites make it easy to share news and photos, funny stories, ads and political views. How much does social media influence how we vote? Is it any more effective than the ancient, archaic way of communicating by voice? Can what we read on these sites sway our political opinions, and can we look at Facebook and Twitter and predict who will win the election?

What do you think? Our number is 1-800-989-8255 if you'd like to jump in and talk about social media and the elections. You can also tweet us @scifri, S-C-I-F-R-I, or go to our website at and leave a comment.

Brian Houston is assistant professor of communications at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. He joins us today from Columbia, Missouri. Welcome to the program.

BRIAN HOUSTON: Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Jon Krosnick is the Frederic O. Glover Professor in Humanities and Social Sciences and professor of communications, political science and psychology at Stanford in California. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

JON KROSNICK: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Let me ask both of you: Do you think that - can Twitter effectively sway this election? Let me start with you, Brian. What do you think?

HOUSTON: Well, I think it can definitely have an influence. So I mean I think that there's the capacity there to get voters more motivated, engaged, excited about the election, to maybe reinforce some existing attitudes, so getting people who are sort of excited about Obama maybe more excited. So in those ways, for sure I think it has an influence in the overall election.

Can it widely flip Obama voters to Romney voters and vice versa? You know, I'm not so sure about that, and I think maybe some of the data we're collecting now during this cycle will give us a little more evidence about what's going on. But those sort of dramatic, earth-shattering effects I think would maybe be a little bit less likely than reinforcing and motivating and getting people out to vote who were maybe already inclined to vote in the first place.


KROSNICK: Well, Ira, there are actually two different ways in which tweets and Facebook posts can influence this election, at least. One is the sort of one-tweet-at-a-time view - that is that if I send you a little note saying, hey, did you see this news story, or I can't believe what Romney said last night, that between the two of us, you know me, you trust me perhaps, and so by this mechanism we can both cement our bond to each other in a political view, and we can also disseminate information much more quickly, and especially a Facebook post in just one moment gets to lots of people much more quickly than traditional communication.

We know that discussion between people does exactly what Brian just said, that there's a sense in which engagement in the election increases if people around us are engaged.

But there's a second way in which Twitter and Facebook and other such social media can influence an election outcome, and that's what you alluded to earlier; that is, a big pile of tweets all at once.

So after the debate happens, or while the debate is happening, if somebody is counting those tweets, which we now know somebody is, and if a news story says to the public, hey, three to one the tweets are saying something positive about Romney, then that has the potential to send a message, and social psychologists for a long time know that when a norm like that gets communicated, it has the potential to push people in one direction or another.

FLATOW: So it's sort of a herd mentality.

KROSNICK: Exactly. In a sense it's the wisdom of the crowds that so often, when you aggregate the views of many people, we learn something of value. But I'm afraid there's a real potential for danger and distortion in this tweet world at the moment.

FLATOW: In what way?

KROSNICK: Well, because it can be manipulated. You know, what we know - for 100 years we've known how to do scientific surveys where we draw a random sample of Americans and we ask them who do you think won the debate last night. And we do that now, and those kinds of scientific survey results are remarkably accurate in forecasting election outcomes and in other ways.

That gives every voice an opportunity with very little potential for manipulation. But as you know, there is discussion these days about bots being set up to send fake tweets to try to create the illusion that people are thinking something when in fact they're not. Even if there were no such bots, we wouldn't know how many people are tweeting how many different things, and it takes some very complex software to be able to discern amidst this crazy world of sarcasm and abbreviations and everything else what exactly a tweet is saying anyway.

So there's the real potential, I think, for us to be misled by the pile of tweets.

FLATOW: So for example, if a sarcastic tweet said didn't you just love what happened last night, the bot, or the software used, might look at the word love and think that's a positive reaction where it's a sarcastic one.

KROSNICK: Absolutely, and you know, you can't blame news professionals who are trying to tell a story about this important mechanism of communication for doing their best with the help of academics and others to understand what they're saying. But without the background knowledge, we may well be misled.

FLATOW: Brian, are you collecting background knowledge? Are you studying the tweets and Twitter on this whole election phase?

HOUSTON: Yeah, we're definitely collecting all the tweets around the big events, so the debates particularly and then also the campaign conventions that preceded them, and trying to develop, you know, some of these approaches and tools to make sense of what is being said, you know, what people are talking about.

And you know, as Jon mentioned some of the - there's real challenges there with sort of understanding the sentiment, recognizing sarcasm and really making sense of what the overall conversation is. We can easily see spikes in activity and say, OK, there was a spike in this moment of the debate, so people were really reacting.

Like if you think about the Big Bird comment in the first debate or the horses and bayonets comment by President Obama in the last debate, we can see those spikes. We can get a sense that people are really evaluating how the candidates are doing on Twitter. But digging in deeper and trying to get, you know, a sense of any sort of kind of real dialogue or conversation that's going on in Twitter around these events is much more difficult and requires much more precise analysis and tools.

It's the hope that we'll get there so that we can sort of pull some of these dialogues and conversations out, you know, for our own understanding as sort of researchers and those interested in democratic processes, but also so that journalists can use them and incorporate them into their coverage of the event so that when we have reporters reporting on the debates, it's not just what the pundits are saying and what the political operatives are saying and what snap public opinion polls are saying but also maybe what some of the conversation on Twitter around these events is.

FLATOW: But Jon, I hear you saying that they're not representative of the general public, even though there are millions of tweets.

KROSNICK: Right, and in fact, you know, there is no scientific basis for saying that lots and lots of tweets are representative of anybody. And you know, that's the real mystery, that if we as a nation say, gee, that's a lot of tweets, so people must be thinking that, then we open ourselves up to the potential that a very special segment of people who feel they've got something to say, feel comfortable with this technology, feel that they're not embarrassed to publicly say what they're thinking, and furthermore, you know, may do so amidst this sort of stream of fake tweets, are carrying around an image that is not really one representative of the country.

FLATOW: And how does Facebook compare to Twitter, let me ask both of you, in terms of having, you know, the conversation going or influence?

HOUSTON: Well, I think that, you know, Facebook tends to be - and I'm kind of making generalizations, but, you know, Facebook networks tend to be a little bit more of a real network, people you know in real life, your friends, your old high school friends, your family. And so in a way it's more of a real social network online, whereas oftentimes Twitter tends to be much looser or weaker ties.

Maybe you don't even know those people in real life. Maybe those people are celebrities that you don't know at all. So the composition of the network looks different. Now, that might lead you to predict that the Facebook network could be more influential because you really know a lot of these people and have relationships with them, and perhaps the Twitter network is more news or information or weak tie-based, and so the influence might be a little bit different or work in different ways for that different type of network.

FLATOW: Jon, does the social media play a role in shaping the news these days?

KROSNICK: In shaping the news? Well, we know that Juan Williams would like it to do so, right, and he - in the quote that you read to us earlier, it's clear that news professionals are looking and counting. You know, it's certainly also true that - is it the last 10 years, plus or minus maybe, that the news business has transformed into a click-oriented business where it's possible for the first time, as compared to 50 years ago, to know which stories in the newspaper are actually being read by how many people.

And if there's a real-time indication of what people are thinking, I can easily imagine that reporters would be tempted to look at that quick content analysis that Brian or somebody else might do during the course of a debate and say, wow, it's the bayonets line that's really getting the tweets, we should write a story about the bayonets.

And is it really true that the bayonets deserve the news attention? It's not so clear from a news professional's point of view. But to the extent that the audience begins to grab the steering wheel and push the media in particular directions that you can see that distortion process happening as well.

FLATOW: So you may be looking for that little zinger that's going to be turned into a meme or a hashtag or something, to create one, because you know that's what's going to be tweeted around.

KROSNICK: Yeah, it's almost like pre-testing, right? If everybody else is reacting to what the president said, then if I talk about it, lots of other people react to what I said.

FLATOW: Uh-huh. And of course both parties have learned how to do this. Last - I think four years ago the Obama campaign was a little better at this, but now it seems like everybody's caught up.

KROSNICK: Well, the Obama campaign, of course, had the reputation four years of being remarkable at using the electronic media to fundraise effectively. And I think that's a little different from this. You know, there's a sense in which you can think about Facebook and Twitter as being windows into two conversations.

Facebook because you basically get to choose who's going to see what you post, it's really what you would say to your friends, whereas Twitter, because people pick you, it's what you say to the public generally. And there's certainly plenty of evidence in social science that we say different things to our friends than we say to the public.

And the interesting question is, you know, in some sense, which is more real? Are we more honest with our friends, or are we more honest when we speak broadly to the public, or is there no difference?

FLATOW: Well, we're going to talk more about this when we come back after the break. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us, just like you would be listening to tweets coming from the campaigns. You can tweet us @scifri, S-C-I-F-R-I. We'll be back talking with Brian Houston and Jon Krosnick after this break. Stay with us, 1-800-989-8255 if you'd like to call.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking, this hour, about social media influences politics and voting behavior with Brian Houston and Jon Krosnick. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones, Jay(ph) in Cincinnati, hi Jay.

JAY: Hi, thanks for taking my call, Ira. Well, I am a registered Green here in Cincinnati. So most of the time when I vote, I am trying to keep some frightening Republican from attaining office or something bad from happening. And I'm genuinely undecided.

I've been disappointed in Obama. I think it's really important to defeat Romney, but I don't know if I can hold my nose and vote for Obama again or if I want to kind of vote my principles, vote my conscience and cast a vote for Jill Stein and the Green Party.

FLATOW: Do you have a question, Jay? Jay, have you got a question for us?

JAY: Well, no, I just wanted - you know, I'm looking at stuff on Facebook and trying to make up my mind.

FLATOW: Do you think you're going to find the answer in social media that's going to make you more decided than undecided?

JAY: Well, there are a lot of articles that are coming at me on Facebook. It's a lot of information.

FLATOW: Do you believe it? Do you believe the stuff you read on Facebook?

JAY: Some of it, not all of it.

FLATOW: How do you know what to believe?

JAY: You know, sometimes I write back and tell them, you know, you're full of beans.

FLATOW: OK, good luck to you.

JAY: Thanks a lot.

FLATOW: All right, 1-800-989-8255 is our number. An undecided voter, that's pretty rare, Brian and Jon.

KROSNICK: Yeah, he should - yeah, absolutely. The main object of a lot of the social media efforts by the campaigns right now is that rare undecided voter who hasn't quite made up his or her mind yet.

FLATOW: Do you think it's safe to depend on Twitter or Facebook to make up your mind?

KROSNICK: Well, I mean, I think that, I think that these mechanisms are excellent ways to find information that you're interested in, to ask others about where information might be that you're interested in. And so I think that they're great gateways or tools to get the content that you're interested in and content that you need.

And, you know, when I look at my Twitter stream, it's generally full of reputable journalists and sources, and so yeah, I think that there is some power with social media to get the answers to the questions that we have and get some of the information that can help us make political and other decisions in our lives.

FLATOW: Jack(ph) in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Hi, Jack.

JACK: How are you doing, Ira? Thanks for taking my call.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

JACK: I really like what Brian and Jon had to say about the power of the Web, and Twitter and Facebook. But I have a little bit different comment on it. I think as I look at Facebook and even Twitter to some extent, there's a whole lot of craziness going on still, and the question, you know, how do you know what's right is a powerful question and an important one.

But the thing I think I'm seeing is that, over time, we're become more informed as a world and certainly, hopefully, as a country, but there's more give and take. The people at the ends of the spectrum, I don't think we're going to - either of those two items, Facebook or Twitter, are going to change too many minds. But it's the great mass of us in the middle, people who are just looking for information, trying to figure out what's right, and I think we're getting better at that.

And I've even - and I'm pretty liberal, I'm very liberal, but I've had some conversations via Facebook, anyway, with conservative people that I thought were way, way farther to the right than I'd like them to be who have had - we've had responsible conversations, and I think that's really powerful.

And so if Obama wins, then I probably swung the vote.


FLATOW: OK, thanks for calling, 1-800-989-8255. What about all these people who, Brian and Jon, who are in their 60s and 70s, and they're not really Twitter or Facebook people. How do you figure them in the mix?

KROSNICK: Well, they're certainly - those folks are going to be less involved at the moment. I mean, certainly over time, as older generations are replaced by younger generations, the country will become more comfortable with these technologies, and then others will come on stream.

But in some ways I guess I'd argue they might be better off. I mean, you, Ira, you asked a question a minute ago about whether people can learn effectively from Facebook and Twitter, and I'll apologize that I've forgotten exactly what the number of characters limit is on a tweet...

FLATOW: It's 140, I think.

KROSNICK: Yeah, so - but, you know, I would argue that 140 characters is probably not a great way to learn about politics or to help resolve one's decision about how to vote. That really the way one would learn and be influenced is to hear in 140 characters somebody you trust say I like this guy, or I don't like that guy. But I don't think that's the way we want to be selecting candidates, probably, because that's relying on a trusted source with no information behind it.

In that sense, I think Facebook is much more promising without that limit for people actually to learn something of substance if they're trying to make a decision.

FLATOW: Brian, are we going to be able to decide by looking at how you've massaged the data coming out of the Twitter in this election, that - can we predict the outcome of an election by looking at Twitter?

HOUSTON: That's a good question. There was - I've seen a study in a German election that looked at Twitter content, and it was a German federal election, and the Twitter content and their analysis of it was correlated with the winner of the election. So there's maybe a little bit of preliminary evidence there.

Here, most of the metrics that I see from varying groups that are analyzing Twitter data seem to show more mentions of Obama, more kind of positive sentiment about Obama, at least overall, across Twitter, you know, not huge differences but a difference there generally.

And so I suppose that if Obama wins, then, you know, we'll have at least an association there, between the type of content we're seeing and the outcome. Are we at a point where we have the algorithms and the analytic approaches to run the data now and have a good estimate based on Twitter reactions of what the election is going to be? No, we're not there yet and are probably a little ways away from that if, you know, if we can get there anytime soon.

FLATOW: Here's an interesting tweet, speaking of it, it came in from Amy, who says: I'm much more politically honest on Twitter versus Facebook. Anonymity lets me share more frequently. No politics with friends for me. That's...

HOUSTON: Which is just the point that Jon was making, right, yeah.

FLATOW: I mean, people are - you know, because they have the anonymity of Twitter, they're more likely to say what's on their mind. Do we know if, up-face, you know, actually talking to people the old-fashioned way is any more influential than tweeting or Facebooking someone?

KROSNICK: I don't think we do know. I think we know, though, that conversations in person are different from the conversations that happen via computers, and I'll tell you just about one set of scientific evidence on this. Survey research started 70 years ago, and at that time, before telephones and computers, the only way to do it was to send interviewers to a randomly selected sample of American households and talk to people face-to-face.

That continues to be the way the most important surveys are done in this country today. The unemployment rate is measured that way by the federal government. And that's the way to get the highest response rates in surveys. And we found it's the way to get the most accurate reporting, as well, from people.

When people are at a distance, for example, talking on a telephone, even not being able to see somebody, answers get distorted in not such good ways, a bit. So there are concerns sometimes when you touch on touchy territory in a conversation, that unless you're face-to-face with somebody who you've developed a sense of trust with, that you won't get such honest reporting.

So I think the tweet you just described, Ira, is probably maybe not as representative as what we've seen in that research.

FLATOW: Isn't there research, I think we've talked about it in past programs here, that friends are more influential to their friends, they can - they carry more weight?

KROSNICK: Absolutely, in fact there's - it's very interesting. James Fowler, who's a professor of political science at the University of California-San Diego, has been doing research on social networks, showing that voting, kind of like the flu, is contagious, that if you vote that you inspire those around you in your close social network to vote a little bit more than were likely to do so as a result.

And that influence happens within networks of friends.

FLATOW: Yeah. And that holds through your Facebook friends, if you have 1,000 Facebook friends?

KROSNICK: Well, that one I can't answer for you.


FLATOW: But is that something you might want to study somewhere along the line, how that works?

KROSNICK: Sure, absolutely.

FLATOW: All right, we'll be waiting to see the results of your study and what you gentlemen come up with about whether - how influential Facebook or Twitter was in the outcome of this election. I want to thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

KROSNICK: Pleasure.

HOUSTON: Appreciate it.

FLATOW: Good luck. You're welcome. Brian Houston is assistant professor of communications at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. And Jon Krosnick is professor of communications, political science and psychology at Stanford. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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