What does a cybersecurity researcher who builds a system to generate alerts for detection security threats and vulnerabilitiesa wildfire ranger tracks the spread of wildfiresand public health professionals trying to predict enrollment in the health insurance exchange have in common?
They all rely on analyzing data from Twitter.
Twitter is a microblogging service, meaning it’s designed for sharing posts with short bits of text and embedded audio and video clips. The ease with which people can share information on Twitter with millions of others around the world has made it very popular for real-time conversations.
Whether it’s people tweeting about their favorite sports teams, or organizations and public figures using Twitter to reach large audiences, Twitter has been part of the collective record for over a decade.
The Twitter archives provide direct and complete access on every public tweet, which has positioned Twitter as both an archive of collective human behavior and a reference and fact-checking service on a global scale. Like a researcher studying social mediaI think these features are very valuable to academics, policymakers and anyone who uses aggregated data to understand human behavior.
The spread of scams and brand imitatorsthe advertiser bleedingand unrest within the company name the future of the platform questioning. If Twitter went under, the loss would reverberate around the world.
Analyzing human behavior
With its sheer volume of tweets, Twitter has provided new ways to quantify public discourse and new tools to map aggregated perceptions, providing a window into large-scale human behavior. Such an digital traces or human activity data enables researchers in fields ranging from social sciences to healthcare to analyze a variety of phenomena.
From open source intelligence to citizen science, Twitter has not only been a digital public square, but has also enabled researchers to infer attitudes that are difficult to detect through methods from traditional field research. For example, people’s willingness to pay for policies and services targeting climate change has traditionally been measured through surveys of subjective well-being. Twitter sentiment data gives researchers and policy makers another tool for assessing these attitudes to take more meaningful action against climate change.
Public health researchers have found a link between tweeting about HIV and incidence of HIVand could have measure sentiment at the neighborhood level to assess the overall health of the people in those neighborhoods.
Place and time
Twitter geotagged data helps in several areas such as urban land use and resilience in disasters. Being able to identify the locations for a series of tweets allows researchers to correlate information in the tweets with times and places – for example, correlating tweets and postal codes with identify hotspots of vaccine hesitancy.
Twitter has been invaluable in the field of open source intelligence (OSINT), in particular for the investigation of war crimes. OSINT uses crowdsourcing to identify the locations of photos and videos. in Ukraine, human rights researchers have focused on the use of Twitter and TikTok to look for evidence of abuse.
Open source intelligence has also been helpful in breaking through the fog of war. For example, OSINT analysts quickly provided evidence that the missile that exploded in Przewodow, Poland near the Ukrainian border on November 15, 2022 was likely an S-300 anti-aircraft missile and unlikely a ballistic or cruise missile fired by Russia.
Identification and verification
Although misinformation has been spread far and wide on Twitter, the platform also fulfills a role as a global verification mechanism. First, large numbers of people use Twitter and other social media platforms. With massive crowdsourcing, social media is taking on the role of an authoritative information provider, reducing some of the uncertainty people face when searching for new information. The platforms fulfill a reference role referred to by some scholars as “public relevance algorithmsin that they have replaced dedicated business or technical expertise in identifying what people need to know.
Another way is official identification. Prior to the Elon Musk acquisition, Twitter’s verification method provided public figures with a blue check mark on their profiles, which served as a shortcut to determine whether a source of a tweet was who the person claimed to be.
While problems like fake news, disinformation and Hate speech existed, the ability to authenticate, coupled with the sheer number of people using the platform in real time, made Twitter a provider of credible information and a fact checker.
The digital public square
Twitter’s dual role in advancing real-time communication and acting as an arbiter of authoritative information is critical to academics, journalists, and government agencies. During the pandemic, for example, a lot of public health agencies turned to Twitter to promote behaviors that reduce the risk of infection.
During disasters and emergencies, Twitter has been a great place for it crowdsourced eyewitness data. For example, during Hurricane Harvey, researchers found that users responded and interacted with the most with tweets from verified Twitter accounts, and especially from government organisations. Official Twitter accounts aided the rapid spread of information during a water pollution crisis in West Virginia. Twitter data also helped hurricane evacuations.
Twitter has also been an important way for people with disabilities to participate in public debate.
The real value of Twitter lies in the fact that people can connect with each other in real time and as an archive of collective behavior. Recognizing this, international organizations, government agencies and local governments have invested significant resources into using Twitter and have come to rely on the platform. Senator Edward Markey has described Twitter as “essential” to American society. If Twitter were to collapse, there would be no clear replacement in sight.