In the fantasy land of social media, the will of the people is drowned out by those who shout loudest
Social media is not reality. So many of us use tech platforms these days, and we use them so often, that we need to be reminded that the online world is a very poor representation of the real world.
Far too often, we see the media, politicians and others view the trending topics and social media mobs as equivalent to public opinion polls. This is dangerous, because social media frenzies do not represent the will of the people.
The numbers do not support the idea that social media is representative of popular opinion. As of this year, Facebook had 1.2 billion daily-active users worldwide. In February, Twitter said it had only 126 million daily-active users, and Snapchat had only 60 million. This is from a global population of almost 8 billion people.
An unknown number of active social-media accounts are duplicates or bots or represent institutions such as businesses. Moreover, the segment of the population that uses social media is skewed. For instance, in the US, Twitter users are younger and more supportive of the Democratic Party, according to a Pew Research Center report. The vast majority of all content is created by only about one-tenth of all users.
The perceptions created by social media are also affected by the biases of the platforms. At least in the US, there have been credible accusations that Facebook, Twitter and others operate with political biases. They are accused of promoting liberal news articles and hiding those that support conservative ideas. They are also accused of shadow banning conservative personalities and promoting liberal arguments in lists of trending topics. Shadow banning means blocking a user or their content from an online community in such a way that it is not obvious that they have been banned.
Democratic politicians in the US, especially those running for president, seem to be driven at times by the social-media mob. Thanks to modern technology, politicians can hear from their constituents immediately, and can be persuaded by the loudest and angriest online. In contrast, President Donald Trump seems to use his Twitter account to direct the narrative. He also holds huge rallies at which he interacts with tens of thousands of supporters, and he tests new lines and policies in front of live audiences to see how the voters react. Live people are always better barometers of public opinion than online accounts.
Just this week, disappointed Twitter users pushed the #CancelNYT campaign in reaction to a headline in the New York Times that they thought was too kind to Trump. Several Democrat presidential candidates, including Kirsten Gillibrand and Robert O’Rourke, fell in line with the mob and added to the criticism. The newspaper capitulated and changed the headline in all editions after the first. In other words, the most influential newspaper in America felt forced to change the headline atop its paper to appease a Twitter mob, but it is unlikely this mob was really representative of the population or even of New York Times subscribers.
Often, media in the West will mistake support of the government on Twitter for actual public opinion.
Ellen R. Wald
What we see on social media is also self-selecting. If you are a conservative, you are much more likely to follow or friend conservatives, and vice versa for liberals. Democrat politicians and the New York Times editors, who all seem to be quite liberal, therefore hear amplified cries from the angry left on social media. They get a mistaken view of the ideas and sentiment of the entire population, not to mention their own constituents and readers.
In the United Kingdom, Brexit supporters won a democratic vote three years ago. That was supposed to move Britain towards a separation from the European Union. After the election, Brits did not stop voicing their opinions, which is good and healthy in a democracy. However, the disappointed Brits who had voted against Brexit and for Remain had an amplified voice on social media. They were the ones who were unhappy, so they interacted most often and with the most emotion. Leave won the vote, but on social media it often looked like Remain was the more popular stance.
In countries that do not permit elections and freedom of expression, social media creates an even more skewed portrayal of public opinion. In some countries, certain social-media platforms are prohibited. Twitter and Facebook are blocked in China, so there is no local mention on these platforms of the persecution of Uighur Muslims, the protests in Hong Kong or the 30th anniversary of the murderous repression of the Tiananmen Square protests. In Iran, only the powerful government elite are permitted to use Twitter, so the views of that country are horribly skewed on that site. For instance, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, has a verified Twitter account and more than a million followers to spread his message.
In other countries, popular Twitter users — sometimes with more than a million followers — have been arrested for their speech and writing. This causes other Twitter users to act more cautiously, for fear of antagonizing the government. As a result, often the only political speech online in such countries is praise for the government. This leaves the impression that the government is extremely popular, even if it is not. After all, it is dangerous to criticize Vladimir Putin in Russia or Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey.
Often, media in the West will mistake support of the government on Twitter for actual public opinion, especially in places where polls are unreliable and free speech is not guaranteed. Clearly, social media is a poor reflection of actual sentiment in such cases, because people lack the liberty to write what they truly believe.
- Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy