Everyone knows that Twitter is rife with trolls and spambots. Yet despite having a less-than-stellar reputation, the social network is often held up as an accurate signifier of public opinion.
During the 2012 elections, countless stories cited Twitter activity as a sign of how America as a whole felt about a given candidate, debate, or single speech. One poster on a Ron Paul fan site, for example, expressed breathless amazement that the former congressman and presidential aspirant was the top trending topic on all of Twitter. ("Holy crap…He is really making a splash in this debate.")
But Twitter, with its insular user pool and skewed demographics, is actually a pretty poor barometer of public opinion as a whole, according to a Pew Research Center report released Monday.
Only 16 percent of all U.S. adults use Twitter — and only half that total, eight percent, use Twitter as a news source. While that would make for a huge sample size in a public opinion poll, Twitter's user pool is unweighted, meaning it doesn't accurately reflect the nation's true demographic makeup.
Twitter news consumers skew young, educated, and affluent. Almost half of that crowd (45 percent) are aged 18 to 29 — more than double that age group's share of the overall population. Meanwhile, only two percent of those 65 or older consume news on Twitter, though that age bracket encompasses 18 percent of the national population, according to Pew.
That's why Twitter's feelings about Ron Paul didn't come close to matching up with electoral reality. During the 2012 GOP primary, 55 percent of tweets about Paul were positive, while only 15 percent were negative. Paul, in case you missed it, is not president, nor did he come close to winning the GOP nomination.
It's essentially the digital equivalent of the old campaign truism that "lawn signs can't vote." Sure, a candidate may have twice as many signs as his opponent across town, but maybe said opponent never bothered to print lawn signs in the first place, or his supporters are environmentalists who find such campaign materials wasteful and inefficient. In the case of Twitter, it could be that those in favor of a given candidate or issue or whatever don't own computers, have no idea what Twitter is, or are too busy enjoying their lives to pause and append "+1" to every tweet from Ron Paul's campaign account.
Pew actually hinted at this phenomenon in a separate report back in March, which found a significant divergence between Twitter reactions and public opinion on a number of major events. Partly causing that split, Pew explained, was that people were more likely to tweet negatively than positively; negative comments about President Obama outweighed positive ones by a 3-1 margin, Pew found.
Obama's approval rating may be underwater, but the president is hardly loathed by an overwhelming majority of the nation.
This is why listicles framing a smattering of tweets as indicative of broader public opinion are so problematic. Doing so "creates that proverbial echo chamber," Poynter's Kelly McBride wrote in September, adding that journalists should "stop repeating what you hear on social media just because it has the hallmarks of a story about to go viral."
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