As London elects a new mayor today, new research from LSE’s Media Policy Project raises concerns about the way data mined from Twitter and other social media sites is used by the media during elections. During last week’s Mayoral debates the twitter-world buzzed with #MayorDebate, #BBCLondon, and #SkyLondonDebate related comments. But research by LSE’s Nick Anstead and Royal Holloway’s Ben O’Loughlin points to problems with the way the use of such hashtags are quantified, interpreted and repackaged for the public by companies they call “Semantic Pollsters”. They explain this new form of polling that makes use of online media:

‘Semantic polling’ is the employment of natural language processing technology to ‘read’ and codify vast datasets gathered online, and then the use of this data to illustrate and understand public opinion.

However the authors find that there is little methodological consistency to the way this data is used and express serious concerns about the way it is presented to the public. They maintain it should not be presented as representative of overall public opinion. This is particularly important considering evidence that reporting on opinion polls by the media can drive, as well as reflect, public opinion itself. Therefore, they warn:

Both those carrying out semantic analysis and those in the media reporting it have a responsibility to offer appropriate explanations about the meaning and limitations of the conclusions, and the methods used in data analysis.

The report calls for increasing media literacy among citizens; increasing data literacy among journalists and editors; developing structures for self-regulation; and a greater level of methodological transparency.