Scientists say social media not reliable for gauging human behavior

Updated: November 30, 2014
Scientists say social media not reliable for gauging human behavior

Researchers have warned that big data trends discerned from social networks, like Twitter and Facebook, misrepresent the real world because they use biased information.

Computer scientists at McGill University, Montreal and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, have discovered that social media is often guilty of “population bias,” as large sections of society are not represented by the sites.

“Many of these papers are used to inform and justify decisions and investments among the public and in industry and government,” Derek Ruths, an assistant professor in McGill’s School of Computer Science, said in a press release. In an article published in the journal Science, Ruths and Jugen Pfeffer, of Carnegie Mellon’s Institute for Software Research, recommend researchers start correcting their datasets for bias.

“People want to say something about what’s happening in the world and social media is a quick way to tap into that,” Pfeffer said. Following the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, for instance, Pfeffer collected 25 million related tweets in just two weeks. “You get the behavior of millions of people — for free,” Pfeffer said in a separate release.

They note that Pinterest, for example, is largely used by women, ages 25 to 34, while Instagram is mainly a platform for people between the ages of 18 and 29, blacks, Latinos, women and urban inhabitants. The design of platforms themselves also can dictate how people behave, they said, noting that it’s harder to find dislikes than likes on Facebook. Also, spammers and bots pose as normal users on social media and get incorporated into predictions. There’s also the problem of being unable to determine how social media platforms filter their data streams.

“The old adage of behavioral research still applies,” Pfeffer said. “Know your data.”