What is a cybersecurity researcher who builds a system to generate alerts to detect security threats and vulnerabilities, a wildfire watcher who tracks the spread of wildfires, and medical professionals that attempt to predict enrollment in health insurance exchanges have in common?
They all rely on Twitter data analysis.
Twitter is a microblogging service, which means it’s designed to share messages of short segments of text and embedded audio and video clips. The ease with which people can share information with millions of other people around the world on Twitter has made it very popular for real-time conversations. From people tweeting about their favorite sports teams, to organizations and public figures using Twitter to reach mass audiences, Twitter has been a part of the collective record for over a decade.
Twitter archives allow instant and complete access to every public tweet, which has positioned Twitter both as an archive of collective human behavior and as a global accreditation and fact-checking service. As a researcher who studies social media, I think these functions are very valuable for academics, policy makers, and anyone who uses aggregate data to gain insights into human behavior.
The proliferation of scams and brand theft, the haemorrhage of advertisers and the disarray within the company call into question the future of the platform. If Twitter were to go bankrupt, the loss would reverberate around the world.
Analyze human behavior
With its huge treasure trove of tweets, Twitter has provided new ways to quantify public discourse and new tools to map global perceptions, and offers a window into human behavior at scale. These traces or digital recordings of human activity allow researchers in fields ranging from social sciences to health care 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 by methods from traditional field research. For example, people’s willingness to pay for policies and services that address climate change has traditionally been measured through subjective well-being surveys. Twitter’s sentiment data offers researchers and policymakers another tool to gauge these attitudes in order to take more meaningful action on climate change.
Public health researchers have found an association between tweets about HIV and HIV incidence, and have been able to measure neighborhood-level sentiment to assess the overall health of people in those neighborhoods.
In due time
Location-based data from Twitter is useful in various areas such as urban land use and disaster resilience. The ability to identify the locations of a set of tweets allows researchers to correlate information in tweets with times and locations – for example, correlating tweets and zip codes to identify hotspots in the vaccine hesitancy.
Twitter has been invaluable in the area of open source intelligence (OSINT), especially in tracking down war crimes. OSINT uses crowdsourcing to identify photo and video locations. In Ukraine, human rights investigators have focused on using Twitter and TikTok to search for evidence of abuse.
Open source intelligence has also been helpful in breaking through the fog of war. For example, OSINT analysts were quick to provide evidence that the missile that detonated in Przewodow, Poland, near the Ukrainian border on November 15, 2022, was likely an S-300 anti-aircraft missile and little likely a ballistic or cruise missile fired by Russia.
So what crashed today in the village of Przewodów, Poland?
With the collaboration of @blueboy1969 we analyzed the available photos of fragments and came to the clear conclusion that they belong to the 48D6 engine of the 5V55 series missile of the S-300 AD system – a Ukrainian. pic.twitter.com/f0Ex3USLN8
— 🇺🇦 Ukrainian Weapon Tracking (@UAWeapons) November 15, 2022
Accreditation and verification
Although disinformation has been widely disseminated on Twitter, the platform also functions as a global verification mechanism. First, a large number of people use Twitter and other social media platforms. With crowdsourcing writ large, social media takes on the role of authoritative information provider, reducing some of the uncertainty people face in seeking new information. The platforms perform an accreditation role that some scholars call “public relevance algorithms,” in that they have replaced dedicated business or technical expertise to identify what people need to know.
Another way has been official accreditation. Prior to Elon Musk’s takeover, Twitter’s verification method provided public figures with a blue checkmark on their profiles, which served as a shortcut to determining if the source of a tweet was who the person claimed to be.
Although issues such as fake news, misinformation and hate speech exist, the accreditation capacity coupled with the large number of people using the platform in real time has made Twitter a credible and a fact checker.
The digital public square
Twitter’s dual role of fostering real-time communication and acting as an authoritative arbiter of information is of critical interest to academics, journalists and government agencies. During the pandemic, for example, many public health agencies have taken to Twitter to promote behavior that mitigates the risk of infection.
During disasters and emergencies, Twitter has been a great place to collect eyewitness data. During Hurricane Harvey, for example, researchers found that users responded to and interacted the most with tweets from verified Twitter accounts, and in particular from government organizations. Official Twitter accounts helped spread information quickly during a water contamination crisis in West Virginia. Twitter data also helped in 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. Recognizing this, international organizations, government agencies, and local governments have invested significant resources in 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 crash, there is no clear replacement in sight.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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