Social Media vs. Opinion Polls

Social Media vs. Opinion Polls

While an avid user of social media, I just found two very interesting facts in opposition to each other that call the validity of social media consensus on any particular issue into question. The South China Morning Post published an article on 10th June about how former national security consultant Edward Snowden trends on Twitter with only one out of thirty people calling him a traitor while the rest calling him a hero. The 30-1 ratio suggests a very strong consensus on the issue with overwhelming support for Snowden’s argument of government overreach.

Statistician and psephologist Nate Silver’s assessment only a month later in his New York Times blog FiveThirtyEight shows a different picture with sources taken from elsewhere. To the question “Would you be willing to give up some of your personal freedom in order to reduce the threat of terrorism?” people saying “Yes” have a consistently higher percentage than people saying “No”. Silver’s article focuses on how recent figures shifted from previous ones, but the shift is far more significant when we compare them to social media trending. The shift here is so massive that demographic differences are unlikely to account for all of it.

Because Nate Silver’s analysis based on various opinion polls provides far more reliable data, it’s worth noticing that the one crucial difference between the two results is a direct question – or the lack of it. The most likely explanation to such a strong contrast seems to be that in some cases one side of an argument is more likely to be expressed than the other even when a potentially significant number of people would opt for the latter if asked directly. In this case for instance, anger is much more likely to be expressed against the government than support. Opinion to the contrary is expressed in polls in far higher numbers simply because members of the public are asked directly to answer the question.

This should probably concern media organisations who regularly report what’s trending on social media as if that gave an accurate picture of what people think about any subject. The total number of Twitter users supporting one side of a particular argument should probably be taken with a pinch of salt at all times if one wants to be reliable with the information they provide to the public. I suspect that activism always plays a role to some degree in current affairs, which means that social media sites will always be vulnerable to falling to one extreme or the other. Taking that data at face value is therefore a mistake as a highly distorted picture is the likely outcome.


“Whistleblower Edward Snowden hailed as hero on social media – South China Morning Post”

“Public Opinion Shifts on Security-Liberty Balance by Nate Silver”


~ by arpadlukacs on August 13, 2013.

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