Is social media that different to ‘real life’?

    Posted on February 23, 2018

     

    Social media can often seem like a strange corner of the world in which people think and act in different ways to how they do away from the internet, but is it really that distant, or do our online behaviours mirror our offline ones?

    Various research has been undertaken in recent years to discover how accurately discussion in this new form of media reflects the wider world, and how reliable the information we can pool from sites like Facebook and Twitter really is.

    Healthy habits

    Just this week, the Pew Research Centre announced the results of a U.S. study into how reliable Twitter can be in gauging public opinion on health issues.

    Traditionally, surveys on matters like health are conducted by telephone, but with an ever increasing number of people using social media, the study was set up to determine whether sites like Twitter could be just as reliable.

    Analysts studied tweets about the Zika virus, and found a very strong correlation between public health attitudes expressed on Twitter and those gathered through phone polling. In fact, co-author of the study Dolores Albarracin said social media “represents exactly the average of the real-life population”.

    If public opinion online can be so closely linked to that expressed offline, it shows the value of marketers using social media to analyse what people are saying about their sector.

    Vote of confidence

    In 2016, the UK public’s vote to leave the European Union and the U.S. choosing Donald Trump as its president were both seen as surprises that went against the opinion polls. Social media, however, had been used to correctly predict both outcomes.

    Extensive research carried out by social media monitoring tool BrandsEye picked up the fact that pro-Trump or anti-Hillary Clinton sentiment on Twitter was a lot higher than polls elsewhere were suggesting within the battleground states. On the eve of the election (November 7, 2016), more than half of tweets were pro-Trump rather than pro-Clinton in Colorado, Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin, while in Iowa and Michigan, the Trump preference was closer to three quarters.

    Indeed, we looked at Google Trends ourselves in the weeks leading up to the election and noted that Trump appeared to have the edge online. Is this what pollsters should be looking at rather than conducting telephone surveys or on-the-street canvassing?

    Despite this, we should acknowledge that people don’t behave exactly the same on social media as they do off it, and ongoing talk of the role of Russian Twitter accounts in drumming up Trump’s support casts a shadow on the analysis. However, to see social media as some sort of vortex detached from the real world is clearly inaccurate.

    John Murray

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