Twitter is everywhere; by the end of 2016, the social networking micro-blogging service averaged 319 million monthly active users – even the President of the United States tweets his daily thoughts.
Because of these vast numbers, Twitter can have a very special use as a barometer for global trends and mood swings.
We at SOAS decided to use this list of official UN real world issues, and find out how many times each one was mentioned in tweets for the whole of 2016.
These were the results:
Note: you are free to use any data and graphics, please just credit ‘SOAS University of London’ as the source.
Number of tweets containing each UN real world issue
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Number of tweets per word connotation
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Number of tweets per category
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The method for collating 173m tweets
We worked with DBD to count the number of times each word was used by using tools to track each day of activity on Twitter before putting the issues into six main categories: disease, food, environment, society, poverty and war.
We then attached a connotation to each global issue: positive, neutral or negative.
This allowed us to better analyse the data, and to attribute a “mood’ to each tweet; for example, if a Twitter user wrote about starvation in East Africa, this would bring a “negative” connotation to mention of the global issue of food.
Nine out of 10 tweets are negative
We found in the course of our research that 88% of the tweets have negative connotations, which means that the subject is perceived by the individual as a problem that needs to be addressed or that cannot be resolved.
We can conclude that these negative feelings may simply reflect the lack of optimism among the population because of the current socio-political mood across the world – we can call it the Trump or Brexit effect or anything else – but the one thing that is clear is that most tweeters feel pessimistic and have lost hope that things can improve. Only 5% of those tweets have positive connotations and 7% remain neutral. Are the numbers showing a trending call for help?
Almost 60% of people have social concerns
The research at SOAS reveals that 59.61% of tweeters are worried about society. Their main concerns involve problems such as terrorism, civil rights, human rights, racism, discrimination, child abuse, equality, exploitation, women’s rights, migration, economic development and world peace. However, the people also seem to care about an ageing population, overpopulation, democratisation, maternal health, demographic transition, displacement, urbanisation, social transformation, global education, maternal health and water privatisation. The above list is more comprehensive than it would have been in, say, 1987.
A smaller world of greater terror
Our main sources of worry appear to revolve around terrorism and racism – which might not come as a surprise given the traumas of 9/11 and 7/7, but such legitimate preoccupations demonstrate as well that, in general, our mentality has become more global in its outlook and less regional. Therefore, we feel an interconnectivity to traumatic events that might have occurred thousands of kilometres away from us because we feel geographically closer. We begin to measure distances in flight hours instead of kilometres, and social networking has allowed us to keep up with faraway events as soon as they happen. There is no longer a delay in reportage as there was, for example, during World War One when news from the Western Front would take days to reach London.
Almost a fifth of us have ‘green’ fears
Our second source of worry is the environment (evident in 19.38% of the tweets), as we feel accountable for the ravages wrought by global industrialisation (the kind that provides the devices on which we tweet, it should be said). We care about pollution, climate change and deforestation mainly, probably because we believe that a change can be made to reverse these. We are all aware that every single person could take small actions that would have an impact on improving the environment. However, we also worry about nuclear waste, marine pollution, desertification, ocean governance and water pollution – even though we have less control over the majority of these.
The spectre of HIV/AIDS haunts us
In our report, we found that 12.46% of tweeters is concerned about disease. However, it didn’t escape our notice at SOAS that the most referred-to illness is HIV/AIDS. Unlike other diseases, such as cancer, HIV/AIDS is something that we can avoid by taking the right measures when we practise sex, although there is the plight of the haemophiliac, the baby born with the ailment, and so on.
Users often turn to Twitter to vent; it is no surprise to see this preventable matter being one of the most Tweeted about global issues.
Poverty is all about the children
Our report reveals that 6.63% of tweeters speak up about poverty, referring to subjects such as sanitation, malnutrition, child mortality, child poverty and child labour. It stands out that when we think about poverty, in a way, we relate our worry mostly to “children”. This could mean that we all feel responsible for any child who goes to bed without dinner but we would assume that an adult could have sorted him/herself out and found a solution. However, it is a truism that poverty, unfortunately, is a problem caused by the socio-political environment and not by the individual, so age should not be considered.
War is of 1% concern
One of the most startling findings of our work at SOAS is that only 1.59% care about war. How can it be that a recurring event that causes so many deaths and has such a huge socio-economic impact becomes a minor source of worry when discussed in social-networking circles? For when Twitter users refer to war, they mention subjects such as land mines, war crimes, nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction and remotely they mention regional conflict. Is it possible that we are so used to the “term” war that we have lost our interest in it? Do we care less about it because most of the current wars are ongoing in what we call “developing-countries” or “third-world”? Why do we care so little about war and so much about pollution? Have we become a less human society? Or is the reason that we have stopped caring about what we can’t control or we cannot change?
Some other studies refer to the millennials as the generation that want to make an impact and they want to do it right here, right now.
If we take all this into consideration, maybe the millennials worry less about war, because realistically to make a “quick” impact and provoke a positive change on a conflict or war is quite difficult, given that the fallout from Balkans is still being felt 20 years on. War remains a problem too all-encompassing for them to change.
Tweeting about food on a global scale
The last matter to consider is that our report finds that 0.33% care about food. However, Twitter is not flippant when it comes to tackling this subject; we at SOAS noticed how tweeters show real concern about concepts such as food security, world hunger, water scarcity and sustainable agriculture. Food is analysed from a socio-economic standpoint, relating to world hunger and sustainable agriculture, two problems that are central for supranational entities as United Nations – for instance.
Twitter as society’s cry for help?
All things considered, we took the statistics from our report into global tweeting trends to demonstrate that we, as a global society, envision the future as problematic, most probably because current problems colour our mood as a people, to such an extent that we see no possibility of improvement.
So, is the upshot that all this Twitter activity is a cry for help? Are we, as a society in general, and our youth specifically, saying out loud that we are aware of the problems but we don’t believe that the right measures are in place to ameliorate them, let alone resolve them?
The birth of a broader world-view
Problems such as terrorism, racism, poverty and climate change are central to our view of the current status of the world and colour every cranny of our everyday life.
However, although problems exist and solutions are not there yet, one thing is clear – we have come such a long way from where we were not that many decades ago, when we used to care only about what was happening in our own country. We now care more than ever before for human rights and equality, and we have been able to identify new problems such as deforestation and non-sustainable agriculture. This demonstrates that we are developing a more polyrhythmic worldview. The first step towards a better future is to be able to identify the problems at present, and we seem to have most of them under scrutiny. Now, we need only to find the solutions.
SOAS University of London is the only Higher Education institution in Europe specialising in the study of Asia, Africa and the Near and Middle East. They offer a wide range of undergraduate degrees and postgraduate degrees to students from all around the world. As a global academic base and a crucial resource for London, SOAS is distinctively positioned to analyse, understand and explain some of the most challenging issues facing us in the world today.