Who’s Tweeting About the President? What Big Survey Data Can Tell Us About Digital Traces
January 21, 2019 Social Science Computer Review
Josh Pasek, Colleen A. McClain, Frank Newport, Stephanie Marken
Researchers hoping to make inferences about social phenomena using social media data need to answer two critical questions: What is it that a given social media metric tells us? And who does it tell us about? Drawing from prior work on these questions, we examine whether Twitter sentiment about Barack Obama tells us about Americans’ attitudes toward the president, the attitudes of particular subsets of individuals, or something else entirely. Specifically, using large-scale survey data, this study assesses how patterns of approval among population subgroups compare to tweets about the president. The findings paint a complex picture of the utility of digital traces. Although attention to subgroups improves the extent to which survey and Twitter data can yield similar conclusions, the results also indicate that sentiment surrounding tweets about the president is no proxy for presidential approval. Instead, after adjusting for demographics, these two metrics tell similar macroscale, long-term stories about presidential approval but very different stories at a more granular level and over shorter time periods.