Twitter is a Flawed Poll

People with strong opinions on a topic, one way or another, are more likely to respond to a poll…and on Twitter.

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White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany takes questions from reporters at a White House press briefing Friday, May 1, 2020, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

If You Don’t Have Anything Nice To Say…

Welcome to Twitter.

Though obvious, it bears repeating once every 600 news-cycles or so: Twitter has become a haven for trolls and rubberneckers. It is the meanest show on earth. Twitter is the mob, it is bread and circuses; and it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Twitter has become the reality television of tomorrow; a place where anyone can be a star. A retweet by someone famous can catapult even the unlikeliest snarker into fame and…well, not fortune. And not really all that much fame, either, come to that.

Not unless the clever tweeter can somehow parlay that Twitter coat-tail swing into something more lucrative and long-lasting. Ideally, you should already be selling something by the time your tweet goes viral.

Because by the time you notice, your time will be almost up. People used to get 15-minutes of fame; now its more like 15 characters.

Like reality television; Twitter may reality, but it isn’t all that real. And it isn’t all that representative of U.S. society as a whole.

First of all, though it might surprise some Twitter personalities to learn it, not everyone is on Twitter. Only about 22% of Americans are on Twitter, based on a 2019 Pew Research Center survey.

Twitter users also tend to be younger, and are more likely to be Democrats.

Of that 22% of Americans who use Twitter, a relatively small number of people generate the most comments. 10% of the people who use Twitter generate about 80% of the tweets and comments.

Most Twitter users rarely even tweet at all.

But Twitter is more than just a social media platform which some people eschew, and some people eschew more than others. Twitter is more than just a political platform where a relatively small group of people like to sound off.

Twitter is a poll. And it a deeply flawed one.

In addition to the statistics that make it clear Twitter is in no way a random, representative sample of the U.S. adult population, Twitter suffers from some of the drawbacks that have made polls very unreliable in the Information Age.

People who answer in polls tend overwhelmingly to be people with strong opinions about the issue being polled, one way or the other. Twitter users who comment, tweet and otherwise #hashtag the trending topic of the moment are people being polled for their opinion on the subject.

People who care about the subject, one way or the other, are more likely to be moved to respond. People who don’t care all that much, certainly not enough to fight with total strangers on Twitter for the next two-hours, don’t bother.

This seismic polling flaw, combined with the illusion that Twitter is a representative sample of the entire country, has created a perfect storm of perfectly useless information about how likely voters will act on election day.

Consider Twitter today as a perfect, encapsulated example. Former vice president and current presidential candidate Joe Biden appeared on a television interview this morning to refute sexual assault claims made against him by a former Senate staffer.

In the wake of this interview, #IBelieveBiden is trending, as is #IBelieveJoe.

These threads are populated by two highly-polarized groups of people: Twitter users who want to say “#IbelieveBiden… is guilty of this crime” and people who support Joe Biden and want to voice support for his declaration of innocence.

There are also plenty of comments from people who have no strong opinions on the veracity of Tara Reade’s claims against Joe Biden: But they do have plenty of strong opinions about the unsuitability of Donald Trump for office.

Some commenters think Donald Trump is the worse of the two evils and are prepared to hold their nose and vote for Biden, whatever the truth of these allegations. Considering the 27-years that have elapsed since the alleged assault took place, there is little chance they can ever be proven or unproven.

But whether it is a strong opinion on supporting sexual assault survivors who come forward, or a strong opinion on the reelection of Donald Trump, strong opinions, and the strongly opinionated, dominate Twitter feeds.

If you notice #KayleighMcEnany trending (she is Trump’s new press secretary), you don’t even need to know that she promised in her first appearance today to never, ever lie to the press to know what the comments might be like.

Don’t even go there with #AlexJones.

Lots of people who vehemently support gun-control efforts in the U.S. have been tweeting about Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today. Trudeau just moved to ban the purchase, sale, or transfer of certain high-magazine capacity firearms in Canada.

But there are an almost equal number of people who don’t like Trudeau and therefore want to use this opportunity to remind the world- on Twitter, at least- that Justin Trudeau once donned black-face for a Halloween party where he dressed as Aladdin.

Twitter opinion hyper-polarization and extreme incivility in the comments sections aren’t exactly heartwarming. But it should be somewhat heartening to think that America isn’t quite as polarized as Twitter and comments sections would have us believe.

Opinionated Twitter users may be dominating the conversations, but they are the minority in an already-small minority; 10% of the 22% of U.S. adults who use Twitter.

So next time something trends on Twitter that makes average Twitter users shake their head in disgust, something like #Boomer Remover, keep it in perspective.

There are plenty of people who like to scream at each other- virtually, at any rate. And there are plenty of ambulance chasers who just like to watch a good public struggle session.

But by and large, the majority of us keep our opinions to ourselves and take the high road: On Instagram, where it's a bit more civil.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)

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