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Daily Download: Assessing the Gap Between Twitter Follower Opinion and Poll Data

March 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jeffrey Brown talks with the Daily Download's Howard Kurtz and Lauren Ashburn about the disconnect between President Obama's Twitter support and public opinion poll data. They also look at the president's efforts to push his administration's policies on immigration and gun control on social media.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, to our Daily Download segment.

During the campaign, it was called Obama for America, President Obama’s online effort to galvanize support. In his second term, it’s morphed into Organizing for Action, again reaching out for support, this time on particular issues and again using social media.

This week, the president addresses the group for the first time.

And I talked to our Daily Download team, Lauren Ashburn and Howard Kurtz, about it and more when we sat down together yesterday.

Lauren Ashburn and Howard Kurtz, welcome back.


HOWARD KURTZ, Newsweek/CNN: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so we talked a lot during the campaign about this notion of using social — social media for the president and Mitt Romney, for that matter, to reach out.

Lauren, what are they doing now with this new morphed organization?

LAUREN ASHBURN: Well, this OFA, which is essentially all of the campaign’s social media, Facebook, Twitter, all of that apparatus, is now going to be used for issues, for immigration …

HOWARD KURTZ: Gun control.

LAUREN ASHBURN: … for gun control, for a variety of issues that the Obama administration is trying to push.

HOWARD KURTZ: But the question is, Lauren, can — even though the OFA has got the 33 million Facebook friends of the president, 22 million Twitter followers and so on, can it galvanize the kind of grassroots support that it did during a campaign when you had a definite opponent in Mitt Romney, and not just …

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, exactly, the question, what are they asking people to do? Because, during a campaign, right, it’s vote for me and get your friends to vote for me.


JEFFREY BROWN: What do they ask now?

LAUREN ASHBURN: It’s also, give me $5 dollars and give me your e-mail.


LAUREN ASHBURN: And when they posted an article, they posted an article on And it was by Jim Messina, who is the former campaign manager who is now running OFA; 47 people Tweeted it.

So, for President Obama and his group to have that kind of article sitting on Barack Obama and only have 47 people tweet it shows that they’re not getting the groundswell of support that they did during the presidential election.

HOWARD KURTZ: But they may be getting the groundswell support from very well-heeled donors, which The New York Times reports they’re paying $50,000 dollars apiece to come to this meeting that the president is going to address. So, maybe aiming at a slightly different audience there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you have a sense of who they — what they’re asking people to do? I mean, to stay — you mentioned gun control. You mentioned, well, various things that are coming up. What do they ask people to do?

HOWARD KURTZ: Call their congressman, do all the things they use digital tools to do in order to get a sense of people backing the president’s legislative agenda, especially in the Republican House.

LAUREN ASHBURN: It’s online grassroots action.


Next — next agenda item for us that also came out this week is the Pew Research Center, a new study, and we talk a lot about Twitter. So, this one suggests that there is a disconnect between Twitter and public opinion.

Describe for us what comes out here.

HOWARD KURTZ: Well, it’s hardly surprising, because although all journalists are on Twitter, only three percent of the public is actively tweeting. We’re talking about not a snapshot of the general public.

We’re talking about people who are much younger, many of them under 30; 57 percent of them self-identify as either Democrats or Democratic-leaning. And so, not shockingly, you get a different kind of public opinion when you just look at the tweets.

LAUREN ASHBURN: So, let’s take a look.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Give us an example. We have got one.

LAUREN ASHBURN: We have some information for you.

President Obama’s reelection, according to this Pew poll, the public opinion poll said 52 percent of the people were happy with the reelection. On Twitter, 77 percent were positive, had a positive feeling about that.

HOWARD KURTZ: They were ecstatic.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Which goes right to Howie’s point, which says that there are more Democrats than Republicans on Twitter.

The second one, President Obama’s second inaugural, the public, 48 percent positive, but here, very interesting, on Twitter, only 13 percent positive. So it really skews …

JEFFREY BROWN: So, that’s an example of the second one, where the public was more positive than Twitter.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Right. Well, and that’s often the case. I find the public is much more positive than Twitter. I have had a death threat on Twitter. It can be a very nasty place.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, there’s a couple of issues here. One is the political issue, partisanship. And there’s the sort of general negativity, right, of social media.

But on the partisanship one, o, this sort of suggests in some cases Twitter is more liberal or more Democratic-leaning, but in other cases perhaps not?

HOWARD KURTZ: Perhaps more conservative. That was exactly the conclusion reached by the Pew researchers.

But when you look at, for example, the president’s second inaugural address, was that because people thought it wasn’t liberal enough, or was it because people just like to snark on Twitter, particularly the percentage? I think it’s half the people on Twitter are under 30. Yes.

And so maybe they’re just more negative toward everyone. And that’s an experience anyone who has been on Twitter has personally experienced.

LAUREN ASHBURN: I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think it’s just young people who are negative.

I think that Twitter is this big megaphone. And if you have an opinion and you want your opinion to be heard, it has to be more negative in tone than positive in order for people to listen to it.

HOWARD KURTZ: Or at least sharper and louder to break through the static. I mean, after all, people wouldn’t go on Twitter — they want to go on to read what others are writing, but they wouldn’t broadcast on Twitter

unless they really felt they had something to say. Sometimes, that slides into negative …

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, this, of course, goes to something we have talked about in the past, which is, what in the world does Twitter tell us?

You know? What is it useful for when you see this kind of differences between it and public opinion?

HOWARD KURTZ: It’s a way of measuring passion.

It is not a snapshot like a public opinion poll. It is not a perfectly — perfect sample of United States’ opinion. It is a way of seeing what is getting the most traction, what is trending, what people feel strongest about.

LAUREN ASHBURN: And it’s also a way of sharing information. We saw this during the election.

The Obama campaign would share all of its information over Facebook, over Twitter. And it’s the same thing for journalists. When we’re finished here, I will share this link so that everybody can see it on Twitter. They can become more informed.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, in that sense, it’s interesting that it differs sometimes from public opinion. But it doesn’t — it’s not supposed to in some ways, I guess.

HOWARD KURTZ: It’s like listening to talk radio. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that it’s like a public opinion survey. But it certainly tells you what people are chattering about and what they feel strongly about.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Well, public opinion surveys also don’t convey tone. Right? So, you’re asked, yes, no? You answer.

HOWARD KURTZ: Approve, disapprove.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Yes, right. And on this, you get to say, yes, no and, boy, is he a jerk.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lauren Ashburn — that’s not a good note to end on, but …


JEFFREY BROWN: Lauren Ashburn, Howard Kurtz, thanks so much.