Published: Published Date – 12:30 AM, Mon – 21 November 22
by Anjana Susarla
What do cybersecurity researchers building systems to generate alerts to detect security threats and breaches, wildfire observers tracking the spread of forest fires, and public health professionals trying to predict enrollment numbers at health insurance exchanges have in common? They all rely on analyzing data from Twitter.
Twitter is designed for sharing posts with short text and embedded audio and video clips. The ease with which people can share information with millions of other people around the world on Twitter makes real-time conversations all the rage. Whether it’s people tweeting about their favorite sports teams, or organizations and public figures using Twitter to reach people, Twitter has been part of the collective record for more than a decade.
The Twitter Archive allows instant and complete access to every public tweet, making Twitter both an archive of collective human behavior and an authentication and fact-checking service on a global scale. These capabilities are extremely valuable to academics, policy makers, and anyone who uses aggregated data to gain insight into human behavior.
analyze human behavior
The proliferation of scams and brand impostors, the loss of advertisers and chaos within the company have put the future of the platform in question. If Twitter goes under, the damage will reverberate around the world.
With its large volume of tweets, Twitter offers new ways to quantify public discourse and new tools to map perception in general and provide a window into large-scale human behavior. Digital traces, or records, of such human activity allow researchers in fields ranging from the social sciences to healthcare to analyze phenomena of all kinds.
From open source intelligence to citizen science, Twitter is more than a digital public square, allowing researchers to infer attitudes that are difficult to detect with traditional on-the-ground research methods. For example, people’s willingness to pay for policies and services to address climate change has traditionally been measured through subjective well-being surveys. Twitter sentiment data gives researchers and policymakers another tool to assess these attitudes for more meaningful action on climate change.
Public health researchers have found an association between tweets about HIV and HIV incidence, and have been able to measure sentiment at the community level to assess the overall health of residents in those communities.
place and time
Geotagged data from Twitter is helpful in several fields, including urban land use and disaster recovery. Being able to identify the location of a group of tweets allows researchers to correlate information in tweets with time and place—for example, correlating tweets and zip codes to identify hotspots of vaccine hesitancy.
Twitter is invaluable in the field of open source intelligence (OSINT), especially in the pursuit of war crimes. OSINT uses crowdsourcing to identify the location of photos and videos. In Ukraine, human rights investigators have focused on using Twitter and TikTok to search for evidence of abuse.
Open source intelligence also helps to clear the fog of war. For example, OSINT analysts were quick to provide evidence that the missile that exploded in Przevodov, Poland, near the Ukrainian border in November 2022 was likely an S-300 anti-aircraft missile and less likely a Russian-launched ballistic missile or cruise missile.
Certification and Validation
While misinformation is widespread on Twitter, the platform also acts as a global verification mechanism. First, a large number of people use Twitter and other social media platforms. As crowdsourcing scales up, social media assumes the role of authoritative information providers, reducing some of the uncertainty people face when searching for new information. These platforms perform what some scholars call a “public relevance algorithm” for certification, as they have replaced specialized business or technical expertise to determine what people need to know.
Another way is official certification. Before Elon Musk took over, Twitter’s verification method provided a blue check mark on a public figure’s profile, a quick way to determine whether the source of a tweet was who the person claimed to be.
While there are issues with fake news, misinformation, and hate speech, the ability to authenticate coupled with the large number of people using the platform in real time makes Twitter a purveyor of credible information and a fact-checker.
Digital Public Square
Twitter’s dual role of facilitating real-time communication and acting as an arbiter of authoritative information has drawn great interest from academics, journalists, and government agencies. During the pandemic, for example, many public health agencies turned to Twitter to promote behaviors that reduce the risk of infection.
Twitter has always been an excellent place to crowdsource witness data during disasters and emergencies. For example, during Hurricane Harvey, the researchers found that users responded and interacted the most with tweets from verified Twitter accounts, especially those from government organizations. The official Twitter account helps spread the word quickly during West Virginia’s water pollution crisis. Twitter data also aids in hurricane evacuations. Twitter is also an important way for people with disabilities to participate in public discourse.
The real value of Twitter is in enabling people to connect with each other in real time and as an archive of collective behavior. Recognizing this, international organisations, government agencies and local governments have invested significant resources in using Twitter and have come to rely on the platform. Senator Edward Markey described Twitter as a “necessity” for American society. If Twitter goes out of business, there’s no clear replacement in sight.