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It wasn’t so long ago that researchers were queuing up to explain Twitter’s extraordinary ability to predict the future.  

Tweets, we were told, reflect the sentiments of the people who send them. So it stands to reason that they should hold important clues about the things people intend to do, like buying or selling shares, voting in elections and even about paying to see a movie. 

Indeed various researchers reported that social media can reliably predict the stock market, the results of elections and even box office revenues

But in recent months the mood has begun to change. Just a few weeks ago, we discussed new evidence indicating that this kind of social media is not so good at predicting box office revenues after all. Twitter’s predictive crown is clearly slipping. 

Today, Daniel Gayo-Avello, at the University of Oviedo in Spain, knocks the crown off altogether, at least as far as elections are concerned. His unequivocal conclusion: “No, you cannot predict elections with Twitter.”

Gayo-Avello backs up this statement by reviewing the work of researchers who claim to have seen Twitter’s predictive power. These claims are riddled with flaws, he says.

For example, the work in this area assumes that all tweets are trustworthy and yet political statements are littered with rumours, propaganda and humour. 

Neither does the research take demographics into account. Tweeters are overwhelmingly likely to be younger and this, of course, will bias any results.   “Social media is not a representative and unbiased sample of the voting population,” he says.

Then there is the problem of self selection. The people who make political remarks are those most interested in politics. The silent majority is a huge problem, says Gayo-Avello and more work needs to be done to understand this important group.

Most damning is the lack of a single actual prediction. Every analysis on elections so far has been done after the fact. “I have not found a single paper predicting a future result,” says Gayo-Avello.

Clearly, Twitter is not all it has been cracked up to be when it comes to the art of prediction. Given the level of hype surrounding social media, it’s not really surprising that the more sensational claims do not stand up to closer scrutiny. Perhaps we should have seen this coming (cough).

Gayo-Avello has a solution. He issues the following challenge to anybody working in this area: “There are elections virtually all the time, thus, if you are claiming you have a prediction method you should predict an election in the future!” 

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1204.6441: “I Wanted to Predict Elections with Twitter and all I got was this Lousy Paper”: A Balanced Survey on Election Prediction using Twitter Data

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