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Kait Park trains faculty members on using the lab's software to enhance their research as part of a series of training sessions she offered for USC's College of Information and Communications faculty. Kim Truett/Provided

The nation will be watching as South Carolina's 2020 Democratic primary nears, but researchers at the state's flagship university will be listening.

Or more accurately, tracking. 

The Social Media Insights Lab at the University of South Carolina has been monitoring what social media users in the Palmetto State are tweeting, posting and sharing about the field of Democratic presidential candidates. 

It isn't a poll, but the findings can be just as telling, lab manager Kait Park said.

"I call it the canary in the coal mine," Park said of social media conversations. "It's a barometer. Social can show where excitement, pressure, and fear lies."

It can also show indicators that polls don't always capture.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton was leading in the polling, but a review of online chatter could have foreshadowed her electoral defeat.

"She was not leading in positive sentiment," Park said. "You weren't seeing this excitement or this buzz. That was astounding to her supporters, but algorithms were making sure people only saw content that they liked and they weren't seeing disparate opinions."

Park added, "If you look at the social data from that time, you can see Trump was the one generating the buzz."

The lab opened in the spring and has been analyzing social media sentiment both in South Carolina and nationwide. The role of USC students in the effort is to learn more about how to use social media analytics in their work.

Randy Covington, director of special projects and Park's supervisor, said 15 to 20 classes have been held in the lab this semester. The goal is to one day require all students in the journalism school to take a course on social media analytics. Faculty members are also being trained on how these social media data can enhance their research.

The first report analyzed the state's May 1 teacher protest when more than 10,000 Twitter posts, new mentions and comments came on publicly available Facebook. Researchers found 67 percent of the posts were positive.

In June, the lab expanded its research to determine which issues were dominating social media in the 2020 presidential race. After analyzing 1.4 million publicly available posts, the lab found immigration and abortion topped the list in South Carolina.

Covington said analyzing this data can help decision-makers and news outlets better understand the world in real-time.

"In a different era, people may have gone to the town square to debate issues of the day. Society today is a lot more complex," he said. "And the town square has become a post on social media."

The lab uses a program called Crimson Hexagon to comb through and analyze millions of publicly available posts on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Reddit, as well as YouTube comments and news sites. 

The software uses artificial intelligence, which means human analysts can "teach" the software to better analyze public sentiment over time.

For example, if a user said a candidate was "killing it" during a debate, an analyst could teach the software to recognize that the slang is a compliment and not a negative.

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"The internet is rife with sarcasm, and sarcasm is one thing A.I. just can't understand," Park said. "We know the context of of a tweet can entirely change with an emoji at the end. It still takes a human being to understand the very complex and nuanced conversations."

Since its opening, the lab has generated regular reports on the Democratic presidential candidates given the outsized role South Carolina plays in the primary process.

Covington points to recent analysis about former Vice President Joe Biden and his standing in South Carolina.

"Biden leads in the polls, and I believe the polls are accurate," he said. "Joe Biden is someone trusted by black voters in South Carolina, who are the backbone of the party. However, in looking at our reports, what you will see is the challenge facing Democrats in South Carolina and nationally: While Biden has the most name recognition, he's not very popular."

Though Biden received the most mentions, he ranked last in positive mentions among the top Democratic presidential candidates, according to an Oct. 5 report.

Meanwhile, an Oct. 24 analysis found South Carolinians on social media discuss President Donald Trump nearly three times as much as they discuss the five leading Democratic candidates combined.

"That doesn't contradict the polls, but it is something that I think can be taken into consideration when someone is debating who potentially can beat Donald Trump or be elected," Covington said.

Park said she understands why it's easy for people to believe social media is an outrage machine, rather than a public forum. 

"But outrage can only sustain itself for a certain period of time, unless something new happens to continue the conversation," she said.

The lab has plans to continue generating regular reports on the 2020 presidential race, as well as the impact of bot activity on social media conversations.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.