Brian HoustonMitchell McKinneyWith the presidential debates and election over, a University of Missouri-based Twitter analysis research team is beginning to really process and analyze “the bigger picture” of Twitter’s impact on debate viewer’s political engagement.

MU Professors Mitchell McKinney and Brian Houston teamed up with two U.S. newspapers, Dallas Morning News and Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville), to obtain tweets from specific geographic regions to examine how tweeters responded to the candidates and their performances. The professors, who are completing a fellowship at Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI), want to know if there were differences based on the different regions.

The team has also been comparing the results to nationwide tweets.

Although the researchers were able to provide data of the most tweeted moments to the participating newspapers, that was only the tip of the iceberg for analyzing the data, said researchers.

What have they learned?

Although the analysis is in the developmental and experimental stages, the team has learned quite a bit already and experienced some challenges. One of the biggest challenges has been the difficulty of analyzing content on Twitter. According to Houston, although the process may look simple and straightforward, it’s not. Each step of the process has presented its own set of trials. Challenges

  • One challenge has been obtaining the necessary tweets from such a large event. 

“It’s challenging to connect with what they call the fire hose to actually get all the tweets because there’s so much and Twitter restricts who can and cannot have all the data for big events,” said Houston.

  • Downloading the data and formatting it so it can be analyzed has also been quite a task.
  • One of the most challenging pieces has been figuring out how to go about analyzing the content and the intended meaning of the tweets.

“You have the issues of sarcasm, intended meaning, acronyms, unconventional language,” said Houston. “It’s a challenge getting that sentiment – is this a positive tweet, is this a negative tweet when someone says ‘Well way to go Romney.’ Often the intended meaning is not clear or obvious or it’s not at face value – say one thing, mean another.”

  • It has also been a challenge to sort through and make sense of tens of thousands of tweets, said the researchers.

“The Twitter stream was certainly driving, I think, the news coverage of the events,” said McKinney. “The journalists were picking up on and using this stream of information to inform their reporting.”

Twitter drove reporting

As the researchers analyzed the data, they also studied how Twitter impacted news reporting during the events. “The Twitter stream was certainly driving, I think, the news coverage of the events,” said McKinney. “The journalists were picking up on and using this stream of information to inform their reporting.” Reporters didn’t need to wait until the polls at the end of the debate to see whom viewers predicted had won. Results were instant.


The tweets were filled with plenty of snide remarks, humor and profanity, but the researchers want to see if there was also a level of conversation, discussion, deliberation and engagement somewhere in the tweets. “My guess, my gut feeling, is that if we can get deeper into the data, if we could drill down somehow, I think we could probably find some conversations, some exchanges that might sort of align with this idea that we have of this being a deliberative tool,” said Houston.

Demographic regions

Partnering with the newspapers has been a useful learning tool in the analysis project. A large number of tweets came from readers of the Dallas Morning News. McKinney said he’s unsure if the fact that Dallas is larger than Jacksonville, Fla., played a factor. However, he said it seemed Morning News staff members were “socially media savvy,” as they encouraged readers to tweet by tweeting themselves. “They were certainly tweeting about the event much more up to it and then during it,” said Houston. “I think that was an extension of their previous/current involvement and presence in social media through the newspaper. They do stuff like that, which is another learning element that we could take away and say ‘if you cultivate this media along with your online and print you can engage readers.’” A survey has been sent out to readers who used the debate hash tags to obtain some feedback about their experiences tweeting about the debates.

  • Watch our website for more information on the analysis project.

Jennifer Nelson  
Senior Information Specialist


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