Hey, Media: Stop Thinking That Twitter Trending Means Anything

The disproportionate importance given to whatever a small number of people are discussing on social media is something that needs to end.

Pretty much since it launched, Twitter has been the darling of the media. Perhaps it’s because searching for tweets on a subject is pretty easy – a lot easier than actually going out and doing journalism – or because it reflects the opinions of a large part of the mainstream (and off-mainstream) media, but whatever the reasons might be, the social media site has become the go-to place for a whole range of ‘journalists’ – and I use that term in the widest sense – to find their stories and judge public opinion.

The obsession with Twitter set in almost immediately. The BBC, in particular, seemed to have some sort of crush on the site, quoting it endlessly in news stories and even setting up a ‘trending’ section on the BBC News website where there would analyse – or more often, simply nod along with – carefully selected trending topics that perhaps reflected their writers’ own world view. It’s nice to think that you are on the right side of history – or, more simply, to believe that the thing you agree with is the popular, widespread opinion and that you are either the voice of the people or the silent majority being ignored – and Twitter is essentially built for confirmation bias. Trending topics make people think that the whole world is talking about a subject, and most of them are agreeing with you – because socio-political issues only tend to trend when the masses are outraged and take to their keyboards to complain. Twitter Trending makes people feel important and heard. It suggests that yes, your opinions on anything and everything both matter in the grand scheme of things and reflect widespread public opinion. Even if two different sides of the same argument are both trending simultaneously, that’s fine because people will generally only click on the one that they agree with, happy to bask in their righteous fury before heading off to shout about something else on another, unrelated thread.

Yet if we look at most trending topics on Twitter – certainly here in the UK – we can see that the subject, at best, only attracts a number of tweets equivalent to the sort of audience a mid-level band might attract to their gigs. Most hashtag topics struggle to make it past four thousand tweets, and of course, that includes multiple tweets by the same person – because, for the average outraged Twitter warrior, every subject is important enough for them to constantly tweet about until another distraction arrives – and those by people who are on the other side of the argument but are using the hashtag to try to attract attention to their own comments (assuming the topic is trending through the use of hashtags and not just cherry-picked by Twitter as ‘something people are talking about’). A particularly passionate argument might hit tens of thousands over time and across the world, but that’s still not exactly what you’d call a huge number of people fired up by the issue on either side. The truth is that the average UK trending subject is being discussed by less than half a per cent of the British population, even if every tweet was from a different person and they all lived in this country. The same is certainly true everywhere else.

By any standards, these numbers can hardly be seen as being representative of public opinion, and most of these angry topics will be dwarfed by people wishing ‘happy birthday’ to a Korean pop star or discussing what Harry Styles is wearing. Twitter is the home to trivial arguments, even on serious subjects – and the 280 character limit seems specifically designed for people who can’t be bothered to read past the headline before posting their angry rebuttal/vigorous agreement, fist-pumping in the belief that their pithy comment calling someone a cunt will sort it all out.

None of this would matter if these topics were not then blown out of all proportion by lazy and opportunistic journalists who will spin entire articles about ‘public outrage’ based on what they see trending and present the fury of a few thousand people as the voice of the nation. There are real-world consequences to this, because businesses and employers, publishers, film distributors, politicians and police forces also listen to Twitter and have knee-jerk reactions to the complaints of tiny groups of fanatics. People lose jobs, have their books pulled from publication, lives are ruined and angry, obsessive and delusional individuals are held up as the voice of whatever group that they are shouting on behalf of, rather than seen as extremist outliers. Inconsequential issues become important because journalists for major, respected newspapers base their entire careers on what or who is trending – especially when it fits in with their own agenda. Look how often ‘public outrage’ is based on one or two tweets by cranks.

Surely, if the results of assorted elections and referendums have told us anything in the last ten years, it is that social media is no more a reflection of public opinion than Peter Sutcliffe was representative of all lorry drivers. Everyone should stop taking trending topics seriously because they mean nothing and skew our ideas of what the public thinks, and that can be unhealthy in many ways – it makes the trivial important while breeding complacency about serious issues because we just assume everyone agrees with us – getting something trending is often seen as more important than actually doing something about it. There is a lot of value in social media – but using it to decide both what the public are discussing and what their opinions on any subject are is a fool’s errand.


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One comment

  1. I would suggest the 24 hour news cycle we all suffer with now holds a large part of the blame for this.

    Other bizzare behaviour can be seen whenever there’s a domestic terror attack or tragedy where they decide to dedicate normal channels to 24 hour coverage of the event, even when there is absolutely nothing new to say about it. Trotting out so called experts to waffle on about nothing really doesn’t help anybody.

    Cynically they also seem to base the number of days they do this on the number of deaths involved, the more deaths the more dedicated days it gets.

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