Myth #20: Social media is an accurate mirror of society.
Jozef Michal Mintal
Myth: Social media adequately reflects societal trends and public opinion. As everyone is on social media these days, one can determine the overall attitudes of a population by looking at what people are posting and sharing online.
Busted: There are at least two fundamentally wrong assumptions with regard to this myth. First, the notion that everyone is nowadays on social media. Even though Internet penetration and social media use saw a steep increase in the last decade, there are still vast differences in Internet and social media penetration around the world, with Internet penetration in some countries being as low as 10%. But social media users are not representative in countries with high Internet usage either. Gender, income, age and other disparities matter (Blank/Lutz 2017). Minorities, including linguistic minorities, also tend to be underrepresented on social media.
But there are also other factors which even further make it simply not possible to deduce the overall attitudes of a population just from posts and likes. (#24) For one, when using social media, we have a tendency to be drawn to those we perceive to be most like ourselves. (#21, #22) This translates to us being exposed on average mainly to beliefs and attitudes like ours, which is a very bad base for assuming what most of the people think and like. Further, user activity on multiple social media platforms seems to follow an approximate power law distribution. (#41)
This means that a small number of users generate a large part of the overall content. For instance, a recent Twitter study suggests that 10% of users in the U.S. are responsible for 80% of social media content (Wojcik/Hughes 2019). The opinions of a few highly active users therefore seem far more prevalent than they are in reality.
There are also many more principles at play, like the majority illusion paradox, algorithmic bias, the creation of fake social media persona(e), etc. We should therefore be very critical of what we see online and recall that when looking at social media we cannot assume that it is an accurate mirror of society.
Truth: Social media depicts a very skewed image of society as a whole. Even though social media use is rising, social media platforms are still far from being representative of the general population. Together with factors like highly active media users, algorithmic bias and the tendency to be drawn to like-minded people and posts one agrees with, we cannot accurately determine the overall attitudes of a population just by looking at what people are posting and sharing online.
Source: Grant Blank and Christoph Lutz, Representativeness of Social Media in Great Britain: Investigating Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, and Instagram, American Behavioral Scientist 61 (2017) 7, 741-756; Stefan Wojcik and Adam Hughes, Sizing Up Twitter Users, Pew Research Center (2019), https://www.pewInternet.org/2019/04/24/sizing-up-twitter-users.