Students following last week’s presidential debate on Twitter might be unaware that their tweets were being analyzed by more than just their followers.
Christopher Healey, a computer science professor at N.C. State University, has developed a program — known as Twitter Sentiment — that monitors tweets in order to track voter opinions.
VICE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE
Time: 9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 11
Location: Centre College, Danville, KY
Info: Follow tweets during the debate — http://bit.ly/WOsJFq
“We were looking for a way to measure and visualize texts,” he said, adding that Twitter’s popularity makes it a good place to track interest in politics.
The model searches for usage of more than 1,100 words and categorizes tweets on a range from “active” to “subdued” and from “pleasant” to “unpleasant.” Healey said the scales of emotion have been measured by behavioral psychologists.
Prior to the first presidential debate, Healey said the amount of tweets about Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama were fairly even.
But at one point, tweets about Romney — who most political analysts said performed better in the debate — began outnumbering tweets about Obama two to one.
The program tracked a sample of 350,000 tweets out of 10.4 million total tweets about the debate.
But Healey admitted the application is not perfect. Tracking Twitter, which limits posts to 140 characters, can be problematic since messages might be misinterpreted.
“The trouble with things like Twitter is people don’t often use correct grammar or complete spelling,” he said.
In addition, the program might misinterpret sarcastic tweets.
Despite these limitations, Healey and others are confident in the future of using Twitter to follow voter reactions.
“I think the content analysis techniques that we have in hand probably are good enough to extract a meaningful message, pro vs. con, from a mass volume of tweets,” said James Stimson, a professor of political science at UNC-CH.
Healey said he is optimistic about the future of Twitter Sentiment and hopes to work with local news station WRAL on future presidential and gubernatorial debates.
Healey said WRAL does plan to use Twitter Sentiment during Thursday’s vice presidential debate, which both camps believe is likely to elicit strong emotion.
Austin Gilmore, president of UNC’s Young Democrats, said he expects Vice President Joe Biden to “come out swinging” against Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan after Romney’s strong performance.
“He and Paul Ryan have a no-holds barred attitude.”
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