Death by Twitter: Social Media, the Political Frontier


After it was revealed, on Sept. 29, 2010, that Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for governor, had summarily fired Nicky Diaz, her housekeeper of nine years, after finding out that she was an illegal immigrant, public opinion polling didn’t immediately show that the revelation had much impact on voters’ intentions.

But a new study – the first of its kind – of the conversation that occurred in more than 480,000 postings in social media like Twitter, blogs and online forums, suggests the matter created an instant, sharply negative shift in opinions about Whitman that polling did not detect until much later.

While negative mentions of Whitman had never risen above about 1,000 in any day, unfavorable comments about her shot up over 5,000 in the two days following Diaz’s press conference with her lawyer, Gloria Allred in which she accused Whitman of treating her “like a piece of garbage.”

“This is a first-time study. It’s by no means scientific,” said pollster Ben Tulchin, who teamed up with Bryan Merica of IDM Communications and Paul Wittenberg of PWSMC Social Media Consulting using the Sysomos MAP application to analyze online conversations, postings, comments and news stories from January 1 through November 2, 2010.

“But when you aggregate 500,000 postings, it come close to representing the wisdom of crowds,” Tulchin added. Let’s underscore that: this was NOT a scientific study. Deciding what is a favorable or unfavorable comment is a subjective judgment, no matter how careful researchers try to be or how precise the Sysomos application is at analyzing words.

Nevertheless, Tulchin and his associates have touched on something important: In the Internet Age, campaigns may well suffer (or benefit) from an almost instantaneous shift in the conversation, based on events over which they have little or not control.

There is no gatekeeper on Twitter, no Grand Poobah of the Internets, no censor over the blogs who can filter or contain what people can say to one another and to the online world. A single spark can start a prairie fire.

Underscoring the power this uncontainable conflagration can unleash is an actual scientific study by the esteemed Public Policy Institute of California that just found, for example, that among registered voters, 55% 93% of liberals, 54% 92% of moderates and 44% 87% of conservatives access the internet. from home.

A previous PPIC study found that 65% of registered voters go online for news sometimes or often.

Taken together, we’re beginning to have data that suggests that what’s being said online – in social media as well as traditional news outlets that are on the internet – is having a profound impact on voters’ opinions about candidates, and perhaps issues as well.

The Tulchin study suggests that monitoring online conversations may well be an early warning system for campaigns that is an important adjunct to public opinion research and campaign advertising.

Lite Gov. Gavin Newsom set out in 2009 to see if he could build a campaign that relied heavily on social media to propel him to the office of governor. It never was a winning strategy for electing a governor. But tell that to the people of Egypt, who organized the peaceful overthrow of the Mubarak regime largely through social media coupled with enormous courage.

Something is happening here and we may not know what it is. Yet.

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There are 2 comments for this post

  1. avatar OC Progressive says:


    It was apparent within a day that this had seriously damaged Whitman by putting a very human, credible face on what we knew all along – that eMeg was a mean, arrogant Ceonista who was trying to buy the election with a massive infusion of money.

    She was really Mr. Smithers in drag, Mrs. Griffith Rutherford Harsh IV, not that “Meg” person she was trying desperately to project.

    And she couldn’t be bothered with something as plebeian as voting.

    The real question here is why public opinion polling failed to pick up something that was perfectly obvious at the time.

  2. avatar Donald from Pasadena says:

    Noted humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Jane Addams, founder of Chicago’s Hull House, once observed that “[the] essence of immorality is the tendency to make an exception of myself.”

    In no small part due to her relentlessly hypocritical efforts to label her political opponents as “soft” on the subject of illegal immigration, Meg Whitman managed to put a public face to Addam’s words – her own.

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