Out of Step: Twitter Bucks Opinion Polls on Immigration

A new study from Demos’ Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM) reveals that Twitter conversations about immigration contrast enormously with public opinion polling on the issue.

Through analysing thousands of tweets prompted by four major debates on immigration in the media and political sphere, the Demos found that Twitter users tended to be substantially more supportive of immigration than the general population.

Data was collected between October 2013 and January 2014, and evaluated through three different types of analysis, capturing the volume and nature of tweets, and the users who posted them.

The four case studies captured reactions to the 2013-14 Immigration Bill, the publishing of an article on immigration by the Prime Minister in the Financial Times, the lifting of controls on the movement of Romanian and Bulgarian citizens into the UK, and a more general study of word associations with key immigration language.

Conversation was found to be largely adversarial towards both political leaders and the media coverage of immigration, suggesting that Twitter if often used as an outlet of protest and disagreement against those in positions of power.

However, while the researchers found the majority of tweets were posted by members of the public, both the Immigration Bill and the Prime Minister’s opinion piece in particular attracted strong participation (31 and 22 per cent respectively) from individuals affiliated with organisations in the political and third sectors – to some extent reinforcing the view of Twitter as a place for organised groups to lobby and campaign.

The study – ‘Immigration on Twitter: Understanding Public Attitudes Online’ – was undertaken with the intention of measuring Twitter’s suitability as an analytical tool from which to monitor public opinion in the UK, and It found that the platform was a relatively inexpensive way for organisations to capture public activity on a large scale, although there remain significant difficulties with representative sampling from the platform and using automated ‘big data’ techniques to accurately measure the overall public mood on a particular issue.

The researchers found that many Twitter users appear to engage with the platform as a means of responding to the media and political sphere, rather than as a forum for general conversation. They argue therefore it is most effective for the purposes of events-based analysis – gauging reactions in real-time to high-profile political activities and debate.

CASM also recommends that further studies on Twitter might be most useful in helping to understand:
– interactions and sharing at a user level;
– longitudinal semantic analysis of terms, phrases and words over time; and
– the identification of individuals and groups involved in public debate, to better understand communities of interests.

Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, said:
“Twitter has become an increasingly significant public space for the issues of the day to be discussed and debated by members of the public. However, this study demonstrates it is a far from perfect measure of overall public opinion – and on the subject of immigration, there is a ‘liberal bias’ on the platform, as attitudes appear generally more left wing than among the population as a whole. Nevertheless, with improvements in methods to collect and analyse Twitter data ethically and robustly, there is huge potential for it to be an important and cheap new resource for researchers and organisations to better understand public attitudes and opinion.”   

For media enquiries, please contact:

Sophie Gaston
Press and Communications Manager, Demos
[email protected] | 0207 367 6325 | (out of hours: 074727 45678)