Study Hacks Blog

The Danger of Exaggerating the Political Importance of Social Media

November 18th, 2019 · 22 comments
Photo by Matthew G.

The Pew Research Center recently released a new study on American Twitter use. As Jennifer Rubin reported in the Washington Post, one of the most striking findings from the report is that only 2.2% of the population currently produces 97% of political tweets.

As Rubin notes, these findings run counter to the core belief held in media and political circles that these services play a critical role in our democracy. She describes the fact that campaigns and reporters take Twitter so seriously as “bonkers.”

I noticed something similar during my book tour for Digital Minimalism. Most of the readers I met didn’t use social media for political reasons and wouldn’t describe this technology as playing an important role in their civic life. Accordingly, most of these readers didn’t care much about what content was spreading on social media, or even which data were used to target this information.

What they did care about was how much time they were spending staring at their phones. There was a widespread sense that these services had become so distracting that they were starting to take time away from activities that were clearly more important, diminishing the quality of their lives.

There exists, in other words, a gap between media/political types and normal users when it comes to understanding the role of social media in political life. The former see this technology as being inextricably intertwined in the fabric of our democracy, while the latter see it more as a distraction run amok.

I used to just find this gap curious. I’ve come to believe that it’s actually quite serious.

When you’re convinced that social media is essential, you tend to accept that it’s up to the political system to ensure that this public good properly serves the public (much in the same way we trust regulators to ensure our water is safe to drink).

The problem with this frame is that it diminishes the autonomy of individual users. While they sit around hoping that the system keeps social media behaving properly, they continue to suffer from the much more prevalent problem: overuse taking them away from more important activities.

If we instead acknowledge that for many people social media is much more superfluous, we empower users to start pushing back, making aggressive changes in their life right away — leading to immediate improvement in many aspects of their daily experience.

This is not to say that social media plays no role in political life, or that there’s no role for the political system to help monitor how these services do things like collect data or target content, but it’s counterproductive to pretend that this is the whole story.

I have no doubt that for those who work in journalism or politics, or for those who depend on YouTube viewership for cultural relevance, that social media really is at the center of their participation in public life. But for most users, it’s not. If we keep ignoring this reality, we’ll unnecessarily impede our culture’s ability to improve our relationship with these tools.

22 thoughts on “The Danger of Exaggerating the Political Importance of Social Media

  1. EA says:

    Social Media is given way too much weight in proportion to its real importance. A random tweet by a random individual might become newsworthy and cause shifts in policies for both public and private entities. It’s just ridiculous, and twitter made things worse by half-banning political ads (see today’s WSJ).

  2. Ana Ulin says:

    Facebook has wider mainstream usage than Twitter, and it is well known that the average social media user consumes more content than they produce.

    So before jumping to conclusions about “politics in social media” as a whole, I would be interested in knowing how many Facebook users consume political content through their feeds.

  3. David Fitzgibbon says:

    I have to disagree here. While a small portion of the population creates the tweets, a huge portion retweet or reply to them, which surfaces them in my timeline.

    I dont follow any political figure on Twitter, however through following many people from America and the UK I’m better informed on American and UK politics than I am on Irish politics ( where I live ).

    While the data you have might be accurate, they dont paint the full picture.

  4. Twitter’s political ad ban can be considered as a part of keeping a check on the spread of false information that could influence elections. Misinformation is worse than no information, however, the user is solely responsible for the content they put out.

  5. Jon Blackburn says:

    I think it’s a mistake to treat Twitter use as a proxy for social media use. Facebook and the Google/Alphabet platforms are much more widely used and by their own admission engineered for the worst possible outcomes when it comes to their effect on public discourse.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Let me ask a question of the crowd here about Facebook. The feedback I kept getting on tour is that people have been shifting from Facebook toward the more visual products like Instagram. One of the reasons often stated is that the Facebook newsfeed contains too many random articles that distant acquaintances thought important, whereas Instagram is more personal, and viscerally entertaining, and much less political. Does this match peoples’ experiences?

      1. Joe says:

        Before I cut the Social Media cord, that was definitely my experience. It took a ton of effort to make Facebook even tolerable, while Instagram was like mainlining things I found interesting in bite sized portions with great visuals that made them easily memorable. IG/SnapChat/Tik Tok/etc do a solid job of leveraging some of the most proven aspects of knowledge acquisition into their design. They’re perfectly designed for managing cognitive load, producing tiny chunks that are mostly related and leave the user wanting more.

      2. Sarah says:

        That is my experience, but it may partly be due to my habits on Instagram: I made a firm commitment to only follow people I would talk to if I saw them in person so it’s a much smaller group, and consists almost entirely of pictures of peoples dogs, cats, kids, and yards. I think there’s a lot of decorating/art/interior design communities on the site (based on a couple of artitist and designer firends I have). I mostly quit Facebook after 2016 because the political content and my overuse left me feeling miserable. I use it exclusively for a private writing support group now, although I heavily considered whether or not to join the group over my previous issues with the platform.

        1. Mo says:

          Yes Cal, those 3 elements line up exactly with what my friends report as well. I have “Newsfeed blocker”, so I don’t experience Facebook in the same way others do.

          There’s an increasing generational gap as well. When I taught entrepreneurship to high schoolers last summer, I assumed they were all on Facebook but when I polled them less than 10% were on Facebook! The rest were on Instagram as a primary platform.

          Curious: have any of these platforms tried to sabotage you, or directly come after you for your efforts in pushing digital minimalism?

      3. I don’t use Facebook except as demanded by certain work situations. I have never used Instagram.

        Neither platform is personal or visceral; just annoying and mostly worthless.

        1. Scott says:

          “Neither platform is personal or visceral; just annoying and mostly worthless”.
          I disagree.
          They aren’t mostly worthless, they are completely worthless!
          Most annoying to -in my observation- is the attention fragmenting over use (typical use) of SM creates in the DNA of the addict (user). Deep conversations in person are rare now…
          Sad, Truly SAD…..

      4. EA says:

        I asked my 17yo son which social media platform is most popular between his friends. He said, Snapchat and Instagram. They loathe Facebook due to the constant polemics to each posts. IG is definitely more relaxed.

      5. James says:

        I think it depends on how you use it. If you use Facebook mindlessly, yeah, you’re going to get a lot of political stuff–because it’s controversial, and controversy sells ad space. If you use it intentionally, however, you don’t see much of it. I use Facebook to keep in touch with distant relatives and friends, and I only see the political nonsense THEY post, plus the occasional political ad that sneaks in before my “block all ads” event.

        If you let Facebook decide how you use Facebook, it’s garbage. If you decide how you use Facebook, it’s still not great but it at least serves a purpose.

        The problem I have with Facebook currently is that it’s become little more than people posting memes. There are a number of other sites that do that better.

      6. Grace / Luiza says:

        That was my experience, before I deleted them. Also, I noticed that advertising on Instagram affected me more than on Facebook, it really pushed my consumerist buttons :/

      7. Daniel says:

        I can’t seem to make Facebook useful to me no matter how I trim down the feed and groups. Even the groups I do care about don’t give me the things I need because my dedication to avoiding social media get in the way of it. In order to keep time wasted from happening I can’t linger on those pages so any postings from groups I care about I cannot fully engage in or get much out of. I haven’t found a solution yet. I found myself switching to Instagram to get what I needed… just my wife posting pictures of the family.

  6. Chris says:

    If I’m reading this right, you raise an interesting point about the assumption of “regulation” for public “good”. To take that further, it seems as if people assume an element of social contract enforcement and a false sense of security in terms of beneficent regulation, when in reality, the regulation is by the platform owners and has demonstrated erratic application, censoring, as well as outright manipulation of systems and ethically questionable use of data.

    I never considered the psychologic aspect of assuming false safety because of the perception that everyone uses it so it must be used for only good and the government will see to that. It’s a further surrender of free will, as well as time. That’s even more of a reason to minimize social media intrusion into your thought space. You raise a great point that goes well beyond measuring the true percentage, and temperature reading, of civic/political engagement.

  7. Ekaterina says:

    Dear Cal, please correct the statistics in your opening paragraph:

    “97% of tweets from U.S. adults that mentioned national politics over the study period came from just 10% of users.” (not 2.2%).

    Kind regards,

    Ekaterina

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I think the way Rubin did the math was that 10% of Twitter users represent 2.2% of the US population.

      1. Joe says:

        That’s correct. It’s 2.2% of the population driving 97% of political tweets, which happens to be 10% of Twitter users.

  8. This argument applies to private enterprise and entrepreneurs too. As a home inspector, a few real estate agents have encouraged me to start a FB page because there are so many agents there. I have never had a FB account personally or professionally and don’t intend to. I think it’s a mistake to assume social media is a necessity for small business owners like myself. The goal is to be so good that can’t ignore you. ?

  9. I get where you’re going or want to go, but you need to dig deeper than just one channel, Twitter and that study is only focusing on the creator of the tweets, not how many times it’s viewed and read.

    On the bright side. I chill with 2.2% of the population. Is that a bright side? It does help my Hypotension.

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