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U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.)  focuses on jobs, the economy, spending and debt, according to an aggregate of his tweets pulled together by a program NU computer science students developed.

Are politicians the sum of their tweets?

by Zen Vuong
Feb 15, 2012


Zen Vuong/MEDILL

Patrick McNally gives a demonstration of his Twitter analysis program, which characterizes a politician's agenda based on what  followers tweet and care about.

Birds of a feather tweet together – and that goes for politicians too, according to a couple of computer scientists working at a Northwestern University lab.

Less than a year old, the Knight News Innovation Lab’s first project, among other things, packages politicians based on information they share on Twitter as well as those who choose to follow them.

“More taxes, more spending, more debt. Read my react to the POTU budget proposal,” U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) tweeted.

“Like so many #GOP accusations about #POTUS, the ones surrounding #immigration come straight out of a fantasy world,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.).

POTU is, of course, President Barack Obama's 2013 budget proposal. 

Computer science students at the Knight News Innovation Lab plan to contextualize countless such tweets with a new project: the Congressional Primaries Project. Its goal is to better prepare voters for the March 20 Illinois primary elections.

Parts of the project should be available in the next few weeks via some news organization websites in the Chicago area. The lab is still recruiting news partners to participate.

Seventy-two percent of senators and representatives have Twitter accounts, reported TweetCongress. This platform has become important in political communication and campaign strategies, said Shawn O’Banion, a computer science doctorate student at Northwestern University.

O’Banion’s politician Twitter Profiling system uses Twitter’s application programming interface (API), a code enabling computer-to-computer communication, to aggregate and analyze politicians’ tweets. The web-based artificial intelligence systems will create a visualization of political candidates and what issues they prioritize.

“There’s all this data” available on Twitter, said Patrick McNally, a computer science doctorate student in an engineering department lab on the university's Evanston campus. “It’s compelling and interesting but needs a narrative context.”

Anais Martinez, 19, said she would like having the Twitter Profiling system help her navigate through politicians and political issues.

“It wouldn’t be my primary source, but it’d be a useful source,” she said.

Twitter is a major social networking player. Approximately 200 million tweets are sent out each day, Twitter reported in June 2011.

Although elected officials may have more than one user handle on Twitter, O'Banion's program is equipped to combine them all into one profile and filter tweets into a pie chart divided into categories that include transportation and infrastructure, health care, immigration, and jobs and economy.

Tweets within each category will be accessible to voters. While voters can currently find politicians' micrblogs, their tweets are organized chronologically rather than by topic and only extend back about a week in general Twitter searches.

The Twitter Profiling system takes the sum of all tweets in the history of a politician’s Twitter usage, so quick adjustments in political messages immediately before elections will not significantly alter a politician’s agenda breakdown in O’Banion’s pie chart.

McNally’s program - also part of the profiling package - uses Twitter to highlight the people following a particular politician. Each politician has a page, and his or her followers’ tweets are streamed on it using his part of the system.

What these constituents are paying attention to and what they care about is information that “characterizes a candidate,” McNally said.

Karim Khowaja, 32, has about 200 followers on Twitter. People follow each other to “find commonalities that make sense through someone,” he said. The conversation that results is a “brainstorm” and “provokes new thought.”

Yet the microblogging site has constraints. “Problems with Twitter involve it’s a very certain slice of humanity; it tends to shift western and technologically capable, so you can’t make general, overarching statements from this data,” McNally said.

Larry Washington, a 61-year-old Chicago elevator operator, said he always votes, but neither trusts nor touches computers.

Of adults who use the Internet, 13 percent use Twitter, reported the Pew Research Center. Though small, this is a 5 percent increase since users were last polled a mere six months earlier. Thus there is a huge potential for increased use.