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During both the US Presidential Election and the Brexit referendum, social media analysis and classic opinion polls had significantly different forecasts regarding the outcome of these votes. As the results were published, the mistakes that traditional forecasts had made became a large point of discussion. This week we are taking a quick look at the development and impact that social media has had on electoral research.

Classic media vs. Social media

Modern voters are largely characterized by a certain weariness of politics and a tendency to leave their voting decision to the last moment. Instead of clear and easy divides, many elections are hard to predict using traditional methods. Indeed, electoral research has to yet to adapt.

The media landscape is changing – printed news is losing ground to online news, which is losing influence to social media. This is having a significant impact on the development of election campaigns and therefore results. In this context, classic electoral research is disadvantaged in that it measures attitudes but leaves out where voters get their information from. This is where integrating social networks into electoral research can help.

How to use social networks for electoral research

Social networks can help develop a greater understanding of political opinions, voting habits and indeed the impact that social media has on elections themselves.

  • Evaluation of original tweets, how often they are shared and what they are referencing helps to draw conclusions on voter opinions.
  • Similarly, analyzing shared content such as likes and comments on Facebook and Twitter etc. helps to determine voter segmentations, where they get their news and opinion from as well as the general mood surrounding elections.
  • Search engine queries help develop an understanding of interest levels shown in the electorate.
  • Facebook is a particularly useful method of gauging voter opinion because it is the most popular social media platform. Approximately 936 million people use it every day.

The success of social media analysis

After the US Presidential Election, it became clear that traditional opinion polls and electoral researchers were wrong. However, social media analysts had delivered accurate predictions. The CEO of the social media analyst group VICO explained that analysts had recognized that Donald Trump had “more than a real chance” of beating Hillary Clinton. At the same time, 17 traditional opinion polls predicted a win for Clinton.

Social media analysts showed that Trump managed to mobilize significantly more followers on social media than Clinton’s campaign did. By following hashtags such as Trump’s #maga (Make America Great Again) and Clinton’s #imwithher and #strongertogether, it’s clear to see that the Trump-Pence campaign dominated the so-called “Twitter-sphere”.

Furthermore, during and after televised debates, positive references to Trump were considerably higher in volume than pro-Clinton voices.

Read more about Trump’s use of Twitter Here

It was not just the US Presidential Election where social media analysts reliably predicted the outcome. The Brexit referendum on the 23rd of June 2016 was predicted to be a closely run affair. Despite this, traditional opinion polls which forecast a “remain” vote victory were wrong, with markets even seeing a short-lived upturn in trading in the early hours of the morning before the final result was announced. Social media analysis, on the other hand, had correctly predicted a “leave” result accurately for hours leading up to the announcement of the final result.

Is reforming electoral research an option?

Although social media analysis has proven itself to be reliable, it is not yet widely viewed as such. It is therefore not incorporated into traditional electoral research. Some traditional research institutes are convinced that while statistical analysis of social media is applicable to market research, it is not appropriate for electoral research. The extent to which social media research is adopted in the future remains to be seen.

There’s no doubt that social networks are a powerful opinion platform in the modern, digital world. We will be following any further developments in electoral research on our blog, traditional or otherwise.