Social Media vs Social Reality

Cover image for Social Media vs Social Reality

There’s already a lot of awareness about how Facebook creates algorithmic echo chambers which serve as a breeding ground for disinformation. A less commented-upon phenomenon, at least outside of the adage “Twitter is not real life”, is how other, more engagement-driven social media platforms create a false sense of political momentum and consensus.

Imagine this: you are a 20-year-old American college student on Twitter. One day, you notice a hashtag about a foreign conflict is trending. You click on it to find that many other young people are outraged about this conflict. As your own outrage grows, you decide to tweet out your thoughts on the subject under the trending tag. Within hours, you’ve attracted more engagement than you ever have before.

Amazed, you watch as the trending hashtag grows from tens hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands of tweets.

You make a triumphant announcement to your new followers and fellow activists: We’re gaining momentum, fam! People are finally waking up to the injustice!

However, what you’ve missed in all the excitement is that the IRL protests about the issue have only a few thousand attendees, and are often being matched by counter-protests. And when the time comes for a vote on the matter in Congress, only a handful support the position that, based on Twitter trends, should’ve won an easy majority.

So, what exactly is going on here? You’d muted that tweet once it really started to take off, but now you go back to it and click on the likes. As you scroll down the accounts that liked your tweet, you notice something interesting. Namely, that most of the people engaging with your tweet don’t live in the United States at all.

It turns out that you do have a consensus—a very real one—but it’s with a group of people spread out around the whole world. These Twitter likes are not going to translate into meaningful votes or policies in the United States.

The demographics of various social media platforms are especially relevant here. Twitter users, for example, skew younger, wealthier, and more left-leaning (80% of Twitter users are well-off Millennials). Whereas the echo chamber of Facebook is driven by algorithms, the one on Twitter is driven by the very nature of its users.

To see this distortion effect in action, you need only look at how absolutely certain the supporters of certain progressive political candidates in countries like the USA and UK are that they’re going to win an election, only to keep getting blindsided by defeat. Their political universes have moved chiefly to Twitter, which is populated mostly by people who already agree with them.

Platforms like Twitter have everything to gain by encouraging these twisted perceptions. Their profit margins are determined by user engagement, and there’s nothing quite like people believing that they’re actually changing the world just by writing a few hundred characters to drive engagement! Besides showing that a particular topic is trending in a particular country, the demographics of those interacting with the tweets themselves are left obscure.

Nobody has the time or patience to scroll through thousands of likes. Moreover, we want to believe that all the clout we’re getting is from people who can actually influence our elections in the areas we care about. We want to believe that our victory is inevitable.

The impact of with is two-fold: firstly, it means that people eschew actual, in-real-life activism for online “activism” on platforms like Twitter, TikTok and Instagram, and secondly (and even more significantly) that politicians and companies take these social media platforms as a legitimate source of feedback, representative of their constituents or customers. This can lead to attempts to implement policies that are actually broadly unpopular outside of a very particular demographic, and corporate capitulations that hurt a company’s credibility and “bottom line” far more than the initial online backlash ever did.

Of course, if you oppose certain causes and dislike certain corporations, this can be a source of a lot of schadenfreude. But I would argue that such bubbles of illusory consensus are bad for society on principle. This breakdown in our ability to get accurate social signals is just another symptom of the breakdown of coherence more generally, and this will never be a good thing.

The solution to all of this is more transparency. While we can personally choose to stop using these platforms, it’s very unlikely that those immersed in this culture of online political and activist discourse will do the same. We need to raise awareness about the problem and put pressure on social media platforms to provide the tools to break through these illusions.

Before we can begin to mend the growing rifts in our societies, we need to have an accurate picture of the fault lines of those rifts.