GW Libraries collect millions of election tweets

Media Credit: Isabella Brodt | Hatchet Photographer

Geneva Henry, the dean of libraries and academic innovation, said the libraries collect social media data for research purposes. Library staff collected more than 3.6 million tweets for political science and communications research on election night.

Updated: Nov. 21, 2016 at 10:50 a.m.

On GW Libraries’ website, students and faculty can skim academic articles, check on the status of requested books and, now, read millions of tweets about the election.

After the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 8, library staff collected more than 3.6 million tweets from election night and 279 million tweets about or from candidates, parties, conventions and debates throughout the election cycle. The dean of libraries said the collection can help researchers who are studying the 2016 presidential election gain insights on what people said on Twitter throughout the election process and on election night, specifically.

The collection is available on Social Feed Manager, a tool created in 2014 with a $24,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Studies, and currently supported by a $130,000 grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, to assist in research through social media outlets. Researchers can access this collection of tweets from the election season by emailing the library’s data email account.

Geneva Henry, the dean of libraries and academic innovation, said in an email that the libraries collect the social media data for “research, archiving and academic purposes” and know that political events are particularly important for researchers in multiple disciplines.

“We expect that the data will be used by GW faculty and students in their published research and assignments for years to come as researchers examine this election cycle,” Henry said.

Holly Cowart, a communications professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said as the world progresses digitally, researching social media can become increasingly telling of the world at large.

“I think that on the one hand social media has influenced how we get information,” Cowart said. “It was a way to understand what people were talking about. Collecting all these tweets tells you what’s important as a journalist or as a researcher.”

Tweets from this election cycle could also uncover hidden perspectives crucial to understanding the unanticipated results of the election, when President-elect Donald Trump defeated Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, Cowart said.

“The idea that polls were wrong, that the polls did not necessarily reflect reality, is something that people are talking about,” Cowart said. “So being able to have these theories, form these theories and then use that information that’s been collected, those tweets, as a way to verify or discount those theories, is probably the best in my mind the best way to go about it.”

Cowart said social media has had strong impacts on journalism and politics, and that politicians increasingly use social media as a tool to control public conversation.

Throughout his campaign, Trump revolutionized the way candidates utilize social media, using Twitter to spread his political messages. Since winning the election, Trump has been vocal on Twitter about protesters, the media and his selections for his cabinet.

“Look at how Trump managed social media in this election,” Cowart said. “Most people looked at that and said it seems like he’s just digging himself deeper, it’s not an effective form of communication. But yet, it got him a lot of attention, and in politics it’s important.”

Sorin A. Matei, an associate professor of communications at Purdue University and a researcher for the Social Media Research Foundation, said it would take more than the 300 million tweets GW collected to understand this election.

“The story of this campaign started last year and to understand it we, unfortunately, need more than 300 million tweets,” Matei said. “We need 100 times more than that. We need 30 billion tweets.”

Matei added that social media isn’t always a reliable tool for research.

“It’s like a box of chocolates,” Matei said. “You never know what you are going to get. Anonymity and pseudonymity often makes it very hard to know who said what, to whom, and for what reason. We only know that something was said at a specific time and maybe specific place. The lack of context often leaves us guessing.”

Marc A. Smith, a sociologist and a member of the Social Media Research Foundation, said that although the compilation of tweets may give an indication of some trends in this election, it is a small fraction of what Americans were thinking on election night.

“It is not necessarily saying that these 300 million tweets is America on the eve of, during and shortly after a momentous election,” Smith said. “It’s Twitter, before, during and after a momentous election. Now is Twitter going to give us any insight into the social world around us? Maybe and yes, but it’s not perfect, and Twitter doesn’t equal America.”

This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that the Social Feed Manager was created by a National Historical Publications and Records Commission grant. The tool is currently being supported by this grant, but was initially developed through with a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Studies. We regret this error.

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