The Half-Dirty Glass of Social Media: New Research on Twitter, Facebook, and the News
Recently, Edison Research (my company) published the first data from our new syndicated tracking study of social media, The Social Habit. Entitled “Twitter Before and After Trump,” the report took a snapshot of social media usage immediately before January 9th, 2021 (the day after President Trump and approximately 70,000 other accounts were banned from Twitter) and immediately after, to see if there were any short-term changes in usage or behavior associated with Trump’s removal.
Among social media users ages 18+, the percentage who say they currently ever use Twitter went up over 20% in the two-week period after Jan 9th from the two weeks prior, and Twitter’s own data corroborates a story of post-Trump growth. The biggest driver of that shift? Social media users who report being politically liberal flocked back to daily use of the service, as you can see from the graph at the top of this article. Immediately prior to Trump’s ban, 37% of those identifying as politically liberal reported daily Twitter usage, which jumped to 46% immediately after what those liberal users might well have deemed Twitter’s “housecleaning.”
That jump from 37% to 46% is likely the first thing that caught your eye from that graph. But it’s not the big story of that graph. It should not escape you that the percentage of liberals who use Twitter daily was already more than double the percentage of conservatives who say the same. Banning President Trump and other account holders didn’t make Twitter “safe for liberals” to return to; it simply made a platform with a very liberal user base even more liberal. This, in a universe in which the average social media user actually leans towards conservativism, as does the United States in general. The latest tracking data from Gallup show that more than a third of Americans identify as conservative, while about a quarter say they are liberal. We saw nearly the exact same percentages among 2020 voters in Edison’s exit polling data. But this is not what Twitterland looks like.
How’s The Water?
In short, removing tens of thousands of potentially harmful accounts may not have made the water clearer, but it did make it more blue, which for some amounts to the same thing. And that analogy — social media as water — is an apt one. The late David Foster Wallace opened his legendary 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech, This is Water, with this joke:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
For millions of us who start and end our day doomscrolling social media on our phones, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok are water. They are the environment in which we swim — and for the millions of knowledge workers who have recently been given the opportunity to learn to work from home — our social lives, too. Is that healthy? As a researcher, it’s not my place to say that it’s healthy or not healthy. It’s my place to describe the present, and in the present, this is the water.
But the waters of Twitter do not resemble the waters of your neighborhood, or even the waters of your Facebook feed. Here in Boston, where I live, our drinking water largely comes from the Quabbin Reservoir about 65 miles west of the city, and is monitored and/or treated to meet high health and safety standards. I know where it comes from, and I know what’s in it — or at least I can find that info pretty quickly from publicly-available data. But the waters of Facebook and Twitter don’t have that data easily available. The “ingredients” of those waters are the users that create and share the content, and if those waters become tainted by harmful ingredients, no one is coming to save us unless the social platforms themselves self-police. A big part of the impetus behind our creating The Social Habit is to monitor what’s in the water, and more importantly, what it’s doing to us.
The events of the 2020 election put a spotlight on social media and the role of the largest tech platforms in the dissemination of news and the shaping of public opinion. If your local Macy’s decides to stop selling Vineyard Vines pants, this is a business decision. You don’t need more than one pair of salmon-colored corduroys in your closet. Macy’s knows this. The mix of products and services at your local retail store can influence your life, I suppose, but the stakes are low. Facebook, Twitter, and other leading social platforms are more than just retailers choosing what products to showcase and which ones to shelve. The stakes are much, much higher. And while social media has done much to divide us politically, it has also managed to unite us around some key beliefs. For example, here are a couple of statements from the time frame of our Twitter Before and After Trump report that both liberals and conservatives agree on:
If you add together the “4s” and “5s” from these two graphs, the big picture is clear — most liberals and conservatives who use social media agree that these platforms spread mistruths. We may not know exactly what is in the water, but we know the water isn’t pure. And while the amplifiers of misleading and harmful information might be your high school classmates and wacky family members, both sides of the political spectrum also agree that the buck doesn’t stop with Aunt Gretchen:
While conservatives feel even more strongly about this, the big picture is clear — in data collected both before and after the Trump ban, roughly 70% of liberals AND conservatives agree that social media companies should be held accountable for the content they promote. They aren’t just choosing which brand of pants to stock. The decisions made — or not made — by the leading social media platforms are affecting our lens on society.
Banning The News
That’s why decisions made by these platforms have such far-reaching consequences. Just today, Facebook made headlines by turning off links to news articles from external sources in Australia when they failed to reach an agreement to compensate the publishers of that news in accordance with Australian law. This was a business decision to ban “news organizations,” but critics of Facebook have written this another way: Facebook has banned the news.
This has been a long-simmering debate between Facebook and news organizations about the uncompensated use of their content. Economically, it basically boils down to one side saying “hey, we are giving you free cans of soda” and the other side saying “hey, we are letting you use our soda machines.” Socially, however, the argument is more complex. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison wrote on his Facebook page “Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing.” The chairman of Britain’s News Media Association Group said the move was “a classic example of a monopoly power being the schoolyard bully, trying to protect its dominant position with scant regard for the citizens and customers it supposedly serves.” And Human Rights Watch declared “Cutting off access to vital information to an entire country in the dead of the night is unconscionable.”
OK, so clearly not just cans of soda, then. Whenever this debate comes up, statistics are often cited about how many people get their news from social media platforms. Cutting the ties between news organizations and Facebook, many attest, would also cut millions (maybe billions) from access to credible sources of news and information. This would leave a vacuum, some argue, that would be filled by disinformation, conspiracy theories, and propaganda. Perhaps. What we don’t know is where the people who say they currently get their news from social media got it prior to social media, if at all. I suppose you could argue that someone who only gets their news from their Facebook feed is not an active consumer of news — they are merely watching it float by them, like a Big Mac wrapper in the East River.
You could also look at statements like Morrison’s, above, which claim that Facebook’s actions have cut off access to essential information about health and emergency services, as a cry for help as much as a cri de coeur aganst social media. Is a world leader actually admitting that they have ceded some aspect of their health and emergency communications to the same place I get my lawyer cat zoom videos? It is also unclear to me that banning news would increase disinformation on platforms like Facebook. Disinformation typically originates off of Facebook, and is then amplified there by your crazy Aunt Gretchen. We all have a crazy Aunt Gretchen. If she has nothing to link to or share, your crazy Aunt will have to develop more than just a desire to spread his nutty theories, she will have to develop ambition.
I’ll stop being facetious here, though, because none of this is funny. Quality journalism is very expensive, and crap conspiracy theories, editorials, and Tweet-thread “news analyses” are functionally without cost save the author’s time. This draws a very real income divide between those who can pay to subscribe to one or more quality sources of the news, and those who can’t. Being able to share articles from The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal on Facebook at least puts the headlines of credible news in front of most people, even if they can’t get past the paywall to read more. Telling people to just get their news from the source is an argument from privilege — eventually, we have all run up against a paywall, somewhere, that we are unable or unwilling to cross.
Facebook’s content ban in Australia will change the water, and in ways that we can’t predict. If this were being done in a lab with volunteer subjects, I would actually be really excited to see the results! What would Facebook be like without news? What would it be like if we couldn’t share links, even? Would it be a font of disinformation? Or would it actually settle into a more social network? I don’t know the answer to that. The new “social audio” service Clubhouse currently has no way to share links, but as I wrote here recently, Clubhouse is a “loudocracy,” rewarding those with the skill and ambition to continually push themselves to the front of the room. The ability to share links to news articles is just as much a means of expression for some people as this article is for me. However it goes, the experiment would fascinate the consumer behaviorist in me.
The Half-Dirty Glass
But Australia isn’t a lab, it’s a continent of humans, and those humans are about to have their water affected. I am not a sociologist, so it is not my place to proffer any opinions on whether or not this is good, or bad, for society. It is my place, however, to tell you that people in the U.S. are worried about whether or not it’s bad for society:
Ultimately, we need to have these discussions as social media users, as Americans, and as global citizens. Facebook isn’t Macy’s, talking about banning pants. Twitter isn’t just a “magazine.” How I feel about these issues is not my point here. My point is to highlight that the people swimming in the water — social media users themselves — are waking up to the fact that the water isn’t pure, and that it might even be dangerous. I’ll share one more stat from our recent Twitter Before and After Trump report:
From these data, it’s easy to see that both before and after the events of January 8th — the ban of President Trump’s social media accounts, the ban of over 70,000 other accounts that were spreading misinformation, and the recent certification of the U.S. Election results — social media users themselves are split: half think social media helps people, and half think social media hurts people.
You might be tempted to read that by falling into a familiar cliché — that of the glass half-empty, half full. But the glass is full. It’s half-clean, and half-dirty.
There’s no such thing as half-dirty water.