Download now: Semantic Polling: The Ethics of Online Public Opinion

Nick Anstead and Ben O'Loughlin have published LSE Policy Brief 5, 'Semantic Polling: The Ethics of Online Public Opinion'. The authors note the emergence of new forms of public opinion research based upon machine-reading of Twitter and other social media during the 2010 UK General Election. They argue that such research raises new ethical questions about the relation between parties, media and citizens. While a better understanding of what and how the public thinks might seem an intuitively good thing for democracy, it is unclear citizens realise their opinions are being monitored and reported back to them as 'public opinion' through news media coverage of elections. Traditional public opinion is regulated and subject to norms about transparency of data and reliability measures, but if public opinion is increasingly measured by private companies who guard their algorithms as intellectual property, journalists, regulators and citizens themselves have no way to check the results are valid or not simply made up.

These issues are only likely to become pressing as we look ahead to the use of semantic polling in the 2012 US Presidential Election. Anstead and O'Loughlin's paper is based on interviews with party campaign managers, pollsters, election regulators, journalists and social media marketing firms operating in the UK.