Opinion: Why Twitter is invaluable for all

Twitter’s dual role of promoting real-time communication and acting as an arbiter of authoritative information is a crucial interest

Date of publication – 12:30, Monday – 21 November 22

Opinion: Why Twitter is worthless to everyone

Author: Anjana Susarla

What do a cybersecurity researcher building an alerting system to detect security threats and vulnerabilities, a wildfire watcher tracking the spread of wildfires, and public health professionals trying to predict enrollment in health insurance exchanges have in common? All are based on analyzing Twitter data.

Twitter is designed to share posts of short pieces of text and embedded audio and video clips. The ease with which people can share information with millions of people around the world has made Twitter extremely popular for real-time conversations. Whether it’s people tweeting about their favorite sports teams, or organizations and public figures using Twitter to reach a massive audience, Twitter has been part of the collective record for more than a decade.

Twitter’s archives allow immediate and complete access to all public tweets, which has positioned Twitter as both an archive of collective human behavior and a verification and verification service on a global scale. These functions are extremely valuable to academics, policy makers, and anyone who uses aggregated data to gain insights into human behavior.

Analyzing human behavior

The proliferation of scams and brand imitations, the hemorrhaging of advertisers and the turmoil within the company cast doubt on the future of the platform. If Twitter went under, the loss would reverberate around the world.

With its multitude of tweets, Twitter has provided new ways of quantifying public discourse and new tools for mapping aggregate perceptions, providing a window into human behavior on a large scale. Thanks to these traces or digital records of human activity, researchers in fields ranging from social sciences to healthcare can study various phenomena.

From open source intelligence to citizen science, Twitter has not only been a digital public square, it has also enabled researchers to infer attitudes that are difficult for researchers to detect through traditional field research methods. For example, their willingness to pay for policies and services that address climate change has traditionally been measured by subjective well-being surveys. Twitter sentiment data provides researchers and policymakers with another tool to assess these attitudes in order to take more meaningful action on climate change.

Public health researchers found a link between HIV tweets and HIV incidence, and were able to measure sentiment at the neighborhood level to assess the overall health of people in those neighborhoods.

Place and Time

Twitter’s geotagged data contributes to various areas such as urban land use and disaster resilience. Being able to identify the locations of a set of tweets allows researchers to relate the information in the tweets to times and places; for example, they correlate tweets and ZIP codes to identify vaccine hotspots.

Twitter has been essential in the field of open source intelligence (OSINT), particularly in tracking war crimes. OSINT uses crowdsourcing to identify the locations of photos and videos. In Ukraine, human rights researchers have focused on using Twitter and TikTok to search for evidence of abuses.

Open source intelligence has also been helpful in cutting through the fog of war. For example, OSINT analysts quickly provided evidence that the missile that exploded in November 2022 in Przewodow, Poland, near the Ukrainian border, was an S-300 anti-aircraft missile and likely a ballistic or cruise missile launched by Russia.

Credentials and verification

While misinformation has become widespread on Twitter, the platform also serves as a global verification mechanism. First, a large number of people use Twitter and other social media platforms. With the spread of crowdsourcing, social networks take on the role of an authoritative information provider, reducing the uncertainty people face in their search for new information. Platforms serve a verifiability function that some scholars call “algorithms of public importance,” in that they have replaced dedicated business or technical expertise to identify what people need to know.

Another way was the official certificate. Before Elon Musk took over, Twitter’s verification method gave public figures a blue checkmark on their profiles, which served as a shortcut to determine who the person believed the source of a tweet was.

Despite issues such as fake news, disinformation and hate speech, the ability to cross-check with the large number of people using the platform in real time made Twitter a provider of credible information and a fact-checker.

Digital Public Square

Twitter’s dual role of promoting real-time communication and acting as an arbiter of authoritative information is essential for academics, journalists, and government agencies. During the pandemic, for example, many public health agencies took to Twitter to promote behaviors that mitigate the risk of infection.

During disasters and emergencies, Twitter has been a great place to get audience data. During Hurricane Harvey, for example, researchers found that users responded and interacted most with tweets from verified Twitter accounts, and especially from government organizations. Official Twitter accounts helped spread the word quickly during the West Virginia water crisis. Twitter data has also helped with hurricane evacuations. Twitter has also been an important way for people with disabilities to participate in public discourse.

The real value of Twitter has been in allowing people to connect with each other in real time and as an archive of collective behavior. In recognition of this, international organizations, government agencies and local governments have invested significant resources in using Twitter and have come to trust the platform. Senator Edward Markey has called Twitter “essential” to American society. If Twitter were to collapse, there is no clear replacement in sight.

(The author is Professor of Information Systems, Michigan State University. theconversation.com)

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