Election time, and the predicting is easy…

Election time, and the predicting is easy…

As I am sure you have heard, the Iowa caucus results are in. Several journalists are reporting on the elections along with claims of “predictions” that social media are supposedly making. And the day after the Iowa caucus, they are wondering whether Twitter predicted correctly or not. And they look at the “professionals” for advise such as Globalpoint, Sociagility, Socialbackers and other impressive sounding companies.

Shepard Fairey meets Angry Birds: Poster of our 2011 ICWSM submission "Limits of Electoral Predictions using Twitter"

Well, Twitter did not get it right. That is not surprising to my co-authors and I.  Yet, they try to find a silver lining, by claiming smaller predictions such as “anticipating Santorum’s excellent performance than the national polls accomplished.” Of course, the fact that Twitter missed the mismatches with the other 5 candidates is ignored. Why can’t they see that?

A few years ago I had created a questionnaire to help my students sharpen their critical thinking skills. One question that the vast majority got right was the following: “Is Microsoft the most creative tech company?” If one were to do a Web search on this question, the first hit (the “I feel lucky” button) would be Microsoft’s own Web page, because it had as title “Microsoft is the most creative tech company.” My students realized that Microsoft may not be providing an unbiased answer to this question, and ignored it.

It is exactly this critical thinking principle that journalists obsessed with election predictions are getting wrong: The companies I mentioned above ( Globalpoint, Sociagility, Socialbackers ) are all in the business of making money by promising magical abilities in their own predictions and metrics. One should not take their claims on face value because they have financial conflict of interest in giving misleading answers (e.g. “Comparing our study data with polling data from respected independent US political polling firm Public Policy Polling, we discovered a strong, positive correlation between social media performance and voting intention in the Iowa caucus.” Note that even after the elections they talk about intentions, not results.)

That’s not the only example violating this basic critical thinking principle I saw today. Earlier, I had received a tweet that “Americans more susceptible to online scams than believed, study finds“. The article reports that older, rich, highly educated men from the Midwest, politically affiliated with the Green Party are far less susceptible to scam than young, poor, high school dropout women from the Southwest that are supporting Independents. If you read the “study” findings, you will be even more confused about the quality of this study. A closer look reveals that the “study” was done by PC Tools, a company selling “online security and system utility software.” Apparently, neither the vagueness of the “survey” nor the financial conflict of interest of the surveying company raised any flags for the reporter.

In the Web era, information is finding us, not the other way around. Being able to think critically will be crucial.

 

 

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