WASHINGTON -- The dueling speeches Monday night by President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner may have been the talk of Washington, but on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, the usual chatter about television and celebrities remained dominant.
One of the questions that political insiders are pondering is whether the speeches will have an impact on public opinion beyond the Washington beltway. Nielsen ratings have not yet been published and public opinion polls on the speeches have not yet been conducted. In their absence, the ongoing chatter on social media sites provides a new way to assess reactions to events like Monday night’s speeches, although the measurements fall far short of the sort of nationally representative sampling that public opinion surveys typically provide.
The website Trendistic, which tracks trends in specific keywords used on Twitter, shows that mentions of "Obama," "Boehner" and "debt" spiked briefly as the two leaders were addressing the nation. And the same service shows that those keywords were also the top trending words at the end of the day. So we know that many Twitter users were talking about the speeches when they happened. But did that chatter amount to a big wave of conversation or a little splash?
The site Twendit, which ranks topics based on the amount of time listed as officially "trending" on Twitter.com, suggests that the impact was small. References to Obama, Boehner and debt (and news generally) were absent from their list of the top ten trending topics for Monday. As usual, topics were more likely to concern celebrities, television or pop culture.
But Twitter trends may not be the best way to evaluate the speeches impact. A survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project in May finds that just 13 percent of American internet users (or roughly 10 percent of all adults) use Twitter. Presumably, only a small fraction of those users opted to Tweet on Monday. So at best, knowing that a speech or political event is trending tells us only about a tiny percentage that are watching and talking about it online.
Potentially more interesting are the efforts to assess the conversation itself. For example, Viral Heat, a service that has partnered with The Huffington Post on election coverage, routinely conducts what they call "sentiment analysis" on topics they track on social media. They use several means to sample the conversations on Twitter, Facebook, Google Buzz and similar websites and and then perform an analysis of whether the sampled comments are positive or negative using a combination of natural language programming and machine learning.
Viral Heat found 4,775 references to President Obama between 8 p.m. EST Monday night and 11 a.m. Tuesday morning. According to their analysis, the vast majority of comments about Obama (79 percent) expressed a positive sentiment, while only 9 percent were negative. As indicated by the bar chart, which shows the level of mentions over the last seven days, mentions of Obama were only slightly higher on Monday than the rest of the previous week.
Comments about Speaker Boehner were less numerous (1,199 total mentions), somewhat less positive (54 percent) and slightly more negative (17 percent). As indicated the the bar chart, mentions of Boehner were actually higher on Thursday and Friday last week.
What do these numbers tells us? It is hard to say, especially since this sort of data is new and relatively untested, and since we know little about the political leanings of those posting comments. But the results may simply confirm what political scientists have found for years through more conventional methods: Audiences for presidential addresses tend to be dominated by those follow political news most closely, and their reactions tend to be filtered by partisanship. The fans of the president usually like what they hear, while those of the opposition party tend to express disagreement.
But whatever the nature of the reactions of those who tweeted about the speeches or posted updates about them on their Facebook pages, the relatively low volume of those comments suggest something that history would lead us to expect: Last night's speeches were probably something less than a political earthquake.