There are some things we’ve always just assumed about the Internet that we never bothered to look into too thoroughly. We know the Internet likes cats, we know people on Instagram think their food is super-interesting, and we know that the things people say on Twitter don’t accurately reflect the popular opinion of society. Don’t worry, though. Pew Research went ahead and double-checked that last one with a year-long study.
To conduct one of the most obvious studies I’ve ever heard of, Pew looked at how the reactions of Twitter users matched up with their public opinion polls after eight specific political events over the past year. The events centered around the Presidential debates, election, inauguration, and speeches.
Let me get this straight. You mean to tell me that the things people scream-type at each other on Twitter during Presidential debates is in some way biased in a way not perfectly in line with the beliefs and attitudes of the average person? Seems pretty far-fetched. I’ll have to see your numbers, Pew. (Pew Pew)
According to the report, 52% of Americans were happy Obama got reelected while 45% were unhappy. That’s pretty close to the way the popular vote turned out, but Twitter showed 77% positive reactions to only 23% negative. Twitter doesn’t always take a liberal slant, though. The public opinion of Obama’s second inauguration speech was 48% positive in real life, but only 13% of tweets had anything nice to say about it.
So why the disparity between Twitter’s reaction to things and the reaction in the real world? It’s because — duh — not everyone in America uses Twitter. According to a separate Pew survey, 13% of adults admitted to ever using Twitter, but only 3% said they use it regularly. The percentage that do use it tend to be younger and more liberal than average.
Although it sure seems like it sometimes, not everyone on Twitter tweets every opinion they have on everything that happens in the world. If you’re inclined to tweet about how psyched you were when Obama got reelected, you might skip telling everyone how you feel about Paul Ryan’s selection as a Vice Presidential nominee. The group of people tweeting about one event are not necessarily the same group tweeting about a different event.
Twitter is an awful way to judge public opinion. So why do news organizations insist on using it as a metric?
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