No, Twitter’s Not the New News

In another item at Tilting at Windmills in the latest issue of the Washington Monthly, Steve Waldman notes that social media are no more likely to become the new place for news–a more wide-open and hence more objective set of media now that cable has ruined TV as the Great Moderator (pun intended).

[W]e thought the internet might at least display a fuller range of perspectives. It’s true that an almost infinite number of viewpoints can be found online, but it turns out that the same qualities that drive ratings on radio or cable drive clicks and shares online: outrage and passion.

Twitter is fueled by retweets, and strong opinions are more likely to be retweeted. Facebook’s algorithm rewards posts that prompt shares or comments. Which of these three posts is the least likely to draw comments: “Keystone will destroy the planet!,”

“Keystone will save America!,” or “Keystone may not be all that important”?

Slate did a great package on 2014 as the Year of Outrage, including this admission from the writer Jordan Weissmann: “Of the top 10 most read stories I’ve written since joining Slate, at least five of them could be characterized as outrage bait.”

As with cable and talk radio, one does not necessarily get an accurate sense of broad public opinion by hanging out on social media. For instance, Twitter reaction was 77 percent positive about Obama’s reelection. Of eight cases studied by the Pew Research Center, six showed significant differences between Twitter reaction and public opinion measured through random sample surveys.

Steve thinks progressives have oversold social media–and especially Twitter–as potential counterweights to conservative-dominated radio and cable. I dunno: I never thought social media would ultimately be different, except insofar as they did not have an inherently biased audience like talk radio. The other thing to keep in mind is the increasingly heavy use of social media to drive traffic to other media, not just to attract eyes to their own content. I only engage very occasionally in one of those outrage explosions on Twitter; it’s main function for me and a lot of other people is as a news feed for non-Twitter content I may want to read.

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.