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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Who Won the Debate? Think Twice About the Answers on Twitter

As President Obama and Mitt Romney finish their closing statements in the presidential debate on Tuesday night, viewers at home will quickly consider who won and who lost. People wanting objective assessments of that question might not want to turn to their Twitter feeds for the most fair-minded answers.

Social media services like Twitter are often hailed for their ability to rapidly deliver the latest news and opinions to users. But while the networks make a wealth of information available to anyone with a smartphone or a computer, users do not consider all sources of information on a level playing field. They pick and choose the Twitter accounts to deliver their news and analysis on the basis of their own biases and opinions. The phenomenon is known as homophily, a tendency of similar people to cluster together and form similar opinions.

“The narrative is that technology is the great democratizer, yet we are divided as ever into our familiar neighborhoods,â € said Gilad Lotan, the vice president for research and development at SocialFlow, a social media marketing company whose technology The New York Times uses to manage some of its Twitter accounts.

After the debate between Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Representative Paul D. Ryan last Thursday, Mr. Lotan's company gathered examples on Twitter of users who used strong language like “Biden won” or “Ryan won” in describing their perception of the debate's outcome. And just as some polls found a close division of opinion on the debate's winner, an almost even number of Twitter users found that Mr. Biden or Mr. Ryan was the victor.

But underlying the declarations by Twitter users of the victor in the debate were signs that the conclusion was echoed by their sources of information on Twitter. Users who concluded that Mr. Biden won the debate often follow a similar group of Twitter accounts, and those who awarded the victor y to Mr. Ryan follow another group of Twitter accounts with very little overlap between the two.

The finding was illustrated by two co-follower graphs Mr. Lotan generated for SocialFlow. The graphs are a visual representation of the sources an audience online shares in common, and which sources are most followed within that audience. And in this case, they showed that Twitter users with a strong opinion about the debate's winner were grouped together around certain Twitter accounts, with little overlap between them.

Twitter users who gave the debate to Paul Ryan.Social FlowTwitter users who gave the debate to Paul Ryan.
Twitter users who gave the debate to Vice President Biden.Social FlowTwitter users who gave the debate to Vice President Biden.

While it is difficult to conclude how something like a Twitter post influences opinion, Twitter users with differing opinions on last week's debate do not appear to overlap much in what they consume on the social network.

“Those who support Ryan, and consider that he won the debate, have very little in common with those who support Biden and claim he won the debate,” Mr. Lotan said.

As Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney conclude their second debate on Tuesday, perhaps you can break out of your social neighborhood on Twitter and gather some opinions you do not usually look to in order to evaluate who won the debate.

But are you likely to do that? Maybe not. Mr. Lotan said that users in a state of h omophily tend to shun opinions that clash with their perceptions.

“The typical reaction is to go somewhere else, to feel uncomfortable, to feel unwanted, to feel like it's not your place,” he said.

Do you think you receive a diversity of opinions from social media? Tell us in the comments.