Twitter users, it turns out, are not as representative of the country as one might think. That's a problem.
Breakthrough data released by the Pew Research Center Wednesday paints a picture of the digital platform that does not mirror the country at large.
The 22 percent of American adults who are active Twitter users tend to be younger, more educated and are more likely to identify as Democrats than the general population, according to Pew. They also favor certain social issues, such as seeing immigration as a benefit to the country, and are more likely to see racial or gender-based inequalities in society.
They also make more money. Forty-one percent of Twitter users make more than $75,000, compared to only 32 percent of the rest of the country.
The findings would be nothing more than interesting were it not for the fact that Twitter, along with its digital platform relatives, is often ground zero for commentary on the latest political battle or social brouhaha.
The problem is that forums on the internet are now where much of modern political work gets done. Elected officials use them to stay in touch with constituents, and they often become arbiters of the success or failure of policy ideas. The viral criticisms of the Green New Deal are a recent example of that phenomenon. It’s important, then, for the country’s representatives to note that any feedback they get through social platforms may not be as representative as they might think.
Another problem is that the country lets relatively few voices guide its conversations. Pew finds only 10 percent of Twitter users produce 80 percent of all tweets. The median number of tweets per month for that group of highly active users is 138. For the other 90 percent, the median drops to only two.
A small percentage of America is driving some of its most consumed online rhetoric, and that’s a problem.
Of course, much of that discourse is likely related to trivial things such as snarky memes or casual check-ins from influencers, which, in truth, don’t matter much in the larger picture.
Nevertheless, a small percentage of America is driving some of its most consumed online rhetoric, and that’s a problem. Like children at Thanksgiving dinner with a talkative uncle, it means quieter voices or dissenting opinions get swallowed up in a barrage of rants, criticisms and poorly worded rebuttals. Healthy dialogue, like the kind that will move the country forward toward its best policies, needs listening ears and thoughtful commentary from all sides.
Pew’s release of the data is also appropriately timed, as President Donald Trump met Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, on Tuesday. The president’s concern, tweeted hours before the get together, was that Twitter discriminates against conservative users. That fear seems to have subsided, as the outcome of the meeting was reportedly, “great,” according to the president.
However, he and the rest of the country should still have this one concern — that putting too much stock in a system that poorly represents America can lead to skewed perceptions of reality.
It would be appropriate for everyone to prioritize the helpful kind of discussions while recognizing the pitfalls of online communication. Face-to-face engagement will always carry far more weight and effect than a midnight post, and leading with that model will make for a healthy and less digitally frustrated nation.