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The Twitter Political Index could revolutionize election coverage, but with a bit of risk

Twitter today released its Political Index, a tool that aggregates Tweets for real-time political polling data. But how easily could this data be manipulated?

Twitter today launched a new tool to help provide American voters and political figures information on public opinion surrounding electoral candidates that far exceeds that which is possible from traditional polls. It's called the Twitter Political Index, and, for better or worse, it leverages the microblogging site's estimated 400 million daily Tweets to gauge public opinion on the candidates for the 2012 presidential election.

The company announced the new tool in a blog post published today, explaining that it was developed through a partnership with content management firm Topsy and polling firms The Mellman Group and North Star Opinion Research. Here's a breakdown of how the tool will work, from Twitter's blog:

Each day, the Index evaluates and weighs the sentiment of Tweets mentioning Obama or Romney relative to the more than 400 million Tweets sent on all other topics. For example, a score of 73 for a candidate indicates that Tweets containing their name or account name are on average more positive than 73 percent of all Tweets.

For example, the trend in Twitter Political Index scores for President Obama over the last two years often parallel his approval ratings from Gallup, frequently even hinting at where the poll numbers are headed. But what’s more interesting are the periods when these data sets do not align, like when his daily scores following the raid that killed Osama bin Laden dropped off more quickly than his poll numbers, as the Twitter conversation returned to being more focused on economic issues.

By illustrating instances when unprompted, natural conversation deviates from responses to specific survey questions, the Twitter Political Index helps capture the nuances of public opinion.

Progress in political polling is long overdue, and with Twitter providing a constant, international conversation for web users to join or leave at their own will, there may not be a better time than now to make that change. Traditional polls have been conducted via phone calls, and the subsequent data aggregated over a period of days, only because those conducting them were limited to those tools. In the past five years, though, social media have slowly evolved into mainstream forms of communication, even reaching the point at which they can be relied upon for research on public sentiment at a given moment. Especially during a tough week in which Twitter's role in the Olympic games has dominated headlines, the move to sort and display real-time public opinion data on the election deserves some praise.

However, there are some concerns. One of the interesting points made in Twitter's description of its new tool is where it claims to be "illustrating instances when unprompted, natural conversation deviates from responses to specific survey questions." That assumes conversation on Twitter is natural. If parody accounts, Twitter trolls, and spam bots have taught us anything (and they usually don't), it's that Twitter conversation can be manipulated just as easily as it can be used naturally.

How will Twitter distinguish between positive Tweets coming from voters or news outlets and those from spam bots designed to drive the conversation surrounding a candidate one way or the other? How easy could it be for an organization with a vested interest in positive poll numbers for one candidate to craft an army of Twitter bots designed to drive Barack Obama's positive numbers down, or vice versa? How many people reading the data, which is sure to make its way to TV news as election coverage increases in the coming months, will be aware that Tweets can be manipulated?

Polling by way of phone calls may be outdated, but at least it can't be manipulated as easily. The Twitter Political Index does have the potential to modernize and even improve access to public opinion on the election, but only if the data it creates can be assured of objectivity.

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