The Onion – the humor site and self-described “world’s greatest news source” – recently reported “Millions Head To Internet To Figure Out Their Own Opinions About Debate.”
They couldn’t be more right.
You may have heard that the presidential debates have become the most “tweeted” events in history. Millions of people flocked to twitter to voice their opinions and shared a wealth of perspectives on everything from the economy to health care to Big Bird. The way social media works, however, chances are you saw only a very small portion of those perspectives, and the people you did see pretty much agreed with one another – and most likely, with you.
As we know, when people log on to Facebook or Twitter or any other social network, they tend to connect with the people they already know – friends, colleagues, church members, and so on. Consumers of news now use technology to collect information that reflects their interests and their world view. For example, conservatives like Fox News, while liberals like MSNBC. The upside of this is clear – friends get to share more information and experiences more readily, strengthening bonds and feeling a more loyal sense of community. The downside, however, is also clear – opinions tend to reinforce themselves, alternate viewpoints grow more scarce, and people outside your tight-knit community grow more “foreign.” Social scientists call this phenomenon “homophily” – we usually describe it with the old cliché, “birds of a feather flock together.”
Homophily in social media – and particularly on Twitter – is the subject of a growing body of research from places like USC, Singapore Management University, Penn State, and Rutgers. Of course, it didn’t take a body of research to convince Politics Daily’s Matt Lewis two years ago – he put together a (still useful) collection of the “top progressives” and “top conservatives” on Twitter and said if you’re a member of this community, “I’m guessing you’re already following these folks.”
As PR professionals who use social media to reach out to consumers of all stripes, we have to be very mindful of communities and who drives the discussions in them. In politics, for example, the word “Obamacare” has much different meanings to different communities, so you need to be mindful of when and how you use it. Further, the nature of “real time” social media means mistakes blow up in your face immediately and it’s very difficult to repair the damage. That’s why the best social media strategists research communities, build relationships and test messages before conducting outreach – particularly in the supercharged political environment we find ourselves in today.
If you’re looking for the people who are tweeting just the facts – stripped clean of ideology or any form of bias – don’t bother. The closest I get is the list of embedded political journalists that APCO’s Super Tuesday Twitter feed follows. But as for completely unbiased tweeters, I’m not convinced they exist. Or at least, they don’t have much to say.