Maybe Twitter *Is* Real Life
If anything, political Twitter is underrated
“Twitter is not real life” is such an overused critique of modern politics that it’s become a cliché.
The latest invocation arose amid chatter to impeach President Donald Trump. Impeachment opponents warn that support on Twitter for Democrats to move forward with their investigation does not equal support from voters. Not long before that, Nate Silver and other pollsters were cautioning against following Twitter sentiment rather than public opinion research, and center-left pundits such as Jonathan Chait were lamenting Democrats’ leftward shift as an appeasement of vocal Twitter activists. Popular YouTuber Dave Rubin uses “Twitter is not real life” as his profile tagline (on Twitter, of course).
The conventional wisdom is that political Twitter’s influence is limited — that tweets are ephemeral, most Twitter controversies don’t matter (except on Twitter), and the importance of Twitter discourse is overrated.
To be sure, people on Twitter — particularly those who are active on “political Twitter” — are not a representative cross-section of Americans. Only 22% of U.S. adults use the platform. About 80% of tweets come from about 10% of the population, and a lot of that activity isn’t about politics.
But in that sense, nothing truly reflects “real life.” The office, church, school, and bar aren’t representative samples of the United States either. If you think a discussion shared within any of those local communities is the equivalent of a national poll, you’re wrong. But if you think what people say there doesn’t matter at all, you’re also wrong.
There’s a strong impulse to downplay the significance of talking heads who trend on Twitter. After all, the platform can be toxic, stupid, and mean. Few want to admit their beliefs are influenced by something like that, just like some people think they’re too smart to be duped by advertising.
But saying “Twitter is not real life” is a dodge. If anything, the influence of political Twitter is underrated.
Most of what ends up mattering in real-world politics mattered on Twitter first.