(CBS News) On Wednesday morning, Twitter debuted Twitter Political Index, the newest tool for keeping an eye on public feelings toward President Obama and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
By sorting through the site's 400 million tweets a day, the tool aims to find those messages mentioning Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. It then analyzes the positive or negative character of those tweets, and calculates an overall approval rating based on that data.
There are obvious drawbacks to creating an approval rating strictly from an algorithm that relies on the musings of Twitter users. For example, the computer judging the tweet may not be able to pick up on a sarcastic tone, something a human would notice. Also, last year the Obama team invited users to tweet Happy Birthday to the president, causing a slight spike in positive tweets relating to him.
But according to Twitter, the company is not trying to supplement polling, but rather add context to the conversation.
"It's not intended to be a replacement for traditional research methods like polling and focus groups," said Adam Sharp, head of government, news and social innovation at Twitter. "It is able to give journalists and researchers a more complete picture of the electorate."
"When the Twitter Political Index is giving a different indication than the polls as to where the winds of the electorate are shifting, that is a signal to perhaps dig deeper and gain a better understanding for the complexities of voting behavior," Sharp said.
One example in which this occurred was last May, following the successful raid that killed Osama bin Laden. While polls showed a spike in Mr. Obama's approval ratings for weeks after the raid, Sharp notes that on Twitter the conversation quickly returned to the economy.
"A month after bin Laden is killed if you get a call from a pollster and they are asking if you approve of the president's job... you remember the bin Laden raid from a month earlier and you say 'yeah,'" Sharp said. "But you're not going to the coffee shop everyday with your friends and saying 'bin Laden is still dead this morning, great day to be an American.'"
Instead, Sharp says those coffee shop conversations with friends go back to talking about mortgages, the rising cost of college tuition and unemployment.
Frank Newport, the editor in chief at Gallup, a leading polling organization, said that although it's too early to figure out the value of social media data in terms of public opinion, it should still be examined.
In his speech as president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research last year, Newport said he told his colleagues, "we as an industry... have to look at it. You know we would be foolish not to examine its potential value. After all, we have millions of people who are trying to give their opinions."
Newport also said the fact Twitter is not a random sample could be a weakness in using the data.
As for Twitter putting out any more political related products prior to Election Day, Sharp noted, "it's an evolving experiment," and that the people at Twitter are "going to continue looking through the data."