ESSAY | Politics on Twitter : Every Tweet Counts!
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ESSAY | Politics on Twitter : Every Tweet Counts!

By George Robert Boynton
Department of Political Science, University of Iowa, Iowa City, USA

ESSAY | Politics on Twitter : Every Tweet Counts!

The standard interpretation of Twitter messaging is that it is about personal matters and personal relations or entertainment or natural disasters. Friends send direct messages to each other. Music and sports are among the popular entertainment messages. The 2012 Olympics generated more than 150 million Twitter messages, for example (Twitter Blog, 2012d). Earthquakes and tsnuami have produced quite large streams of messages. The winter Olympics in 2014 also saw many millions of tweets with one peak reaching 72,630 tweets per minute. (Fraser, 2014)

What about politics? Is politics a major player on Twitter as well? In 2012, the presidential election was the major story about politics for the year. The standard projection is that elections do not begin until after Labor Day. That is not so much a statement about the candidates as about the public. It is when, traditionally, most of the public have turned their attention to the election. But the election on Twitter was off to a big start much earlier. Messages mentioning Obama and Romney were collected in May and June. The counts depend on the search term. In the case of Obama the messages mentioned Obama, Barackobama, and Obama 2012. Both Obama and Barackobama had been actively used in Twitter messages before that, but Obama 2012 started at about that point. These are barely overlapping sets. If you mention Obama you do not refer to Barackobama or Obama 2012, for example. So the total for Obama combines all three search terms. The search for Romney was that single search for the two months, and beginning in June searching for mittromney produced enough messages that they became part of the collection as well. So the total for Romney is the total for Romney in May and for Romney and mittromney in June. The secondary searches find relatively few messages compared to the searches for Obama and Romney.

Figure 1 shows the number of messages about Obama, about Romney, and the total number of messages mentioning either. The red line is messages mentioning Romney. The blue line is messages mentioning Obama. And the green line is the sum of the two. During the period Obama was the dominate focus of communication about the election. There are some spikes, but the mean number of messages per day was 197,538, and there is no upward or downward trend during the two months. Romney was mentioned much less frequently. The mean number per day was 64,136, and there is no upward trend from May to June despite adding the search for mittromney. The answer to the question about how big politics is on Twitter is in the total, which was an average of 261,674. The total fluctuates with messages about the candidates, but it is relatively stable over time at 261,274. That is a quarter of million messages about the candidates each day. For a week that is 1.8 million messages. That number agrees with the announcement of Twitter about the #twindex that they had developed for the assessment of messages about the two candidates(Twitter Blog, 2012a). They say their index is based on approximately two million messages a week. Then by the end of the campaign there was a huge spike of communication. On the seventh of November there were 31 million messages about the election and its result (Twitter Blog, 2012b).

 Figure 1. Twitter messages about Obama, Romney and the sum of the two.

 Figure 1. Twitter messages about Obama, Romney and the sum of the two

But large numbers are not limited to the US presidential election campaign. Messages mentioning Bahrain, Syria, Iran and Yemen each totaled approximately 500,000 messages a week. Two political dispositions, Teaparty, and P2 are large streams of messages. The progressive stream, #P2, averages about 100,000 messages a week, and #Teaparty averages about 60,000 a week. Some policy domains produce considerable messaging. There were more than a million messages leading up to and with the passage of the health care reform in 2010, for example. And there are huge spikes. The messaging about the State of the Union was extraordinary for a single day (Boynton & Richardson, 2012). As was the messaging the day the Supreme Court released their decision on the health care legislation (Boynton, 2012a).

Politics is too diverse to be able to collect or even sample all political messages using Twitter. Just for starters you would need to collect messages about every politician in the world, every political disposition in the world, every policy matter in the world, every form of demonstration and conflict in the world. There is no list, and there is no shortcut. However, with 500 million a day as the upper limit and based on these collections and the counts Twitter has publicized it seems clear that there are tens of millions of political messages a day. It is a huge addition to the public domain. The public domain has been enormously expanded.


Statistic: Number of monthly active Twitter users in the United States from 1st quarter 2010 to 4th quarter 2015 (in  millions) | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

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