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Social media isn’t public opinion. It’s not even social media.

Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram – almost all of us have a least one account on one of these platforms. In fact, according to Statista.com, the UK was home to 57.6 million active social media users in February 2022. That translates into a penetration rate of 84.3% of the population of the UK. We visit these platforms on an hourly basis, some even more frequently, to publish our opinions, share information, post photos, and spend time arguing and commenting on other people’s opinions.

But although nearly every British person has an account, and even though people share their opinions with others on these platforms, defining them as ‘social media’ is a mistake. Because when it comes to the source of revenue, we are not the paying customers of these companies; they are digital advertising platforms, and we are the product they sell. That does not mean that we should stop using ‘social media’ – many free products and services we use are helpful and positive, and we are willing to ‘pay’ by watching ads or joining a mailing list. However, it is vital that we fully understand what this model means when it comes to expressing real public opinions.


The more you stay, the more they earn

Here is the bottom line: in order to make money, ‘social media’ platforms sell ad space while allowing advertisers to target specific audiences based on location, age, gender and interests. How do they know your location, age, gender and interests? Well, you tell them yourself – every time you log on, comment, like or read something. So far so good: advertisers can also target billboards in tube stations, by choosing certain locations that would appeal to a specific group of people, just not as effectively as advertising on Facebook.

But what if, to make people see my billboards more often and for longer periods, I could also tweak the tube schedule to bring the traffic to a halt?

This is exactly the secret ingredient used by digital marketing platforms posing as ‘social media’. Simply put, the more you stay online, the greater the chances you will see a paid ad and click on it. And that means that the goal of these platforms is not to act as a forum, where all opinions meet and debate democratically; it’s to get you to stay for as long as possible. And if that means that instead of a civilised debate, the forum hosts a bunch of cats doing cute cat things, so be it.


What if, to make people see my billboards more often and for longer periods, I could also tweak the tube schedule to bring the traffic to a halt?

Sometimes, the cats are fake: while most platforms declare a 5%-10% rate of fake accounts, not including real people with multiple accounts using aliases, other studies suggest that the rate is higher than 20%, perhaps even 50% when examining specific threads. When Elon Musk examined one hundred random Twitter accounts following his company Tesla, he reported that 20% of them were bots; a later study by experts suggested the rate might be higher than 50%. Even Facebook’s declared 5% translates to ninety million active fake accounts.




How can I make my opinions count?


It’s not just the existence of fake accounts and really cute cats. To keep you scrolling, most of these platforms will also highlight posts by people you reacted to before, whether that was because you liked what they had to say or because they made you angry enough to leave an enraged comment. Eventually, your feed will be compiled of either things you love or things you hate.


What it won’t be is a true reflection of society or public opinion: to date, no method exists to measure real public opinion through ‘social media’. Attempts to gauge public opinion by simply analysing posts and tweets have had to adjust the results to reflect different patterns of use, overcome issues with a lack of data to ensure representativeness, confront the challenges of distinguishing between real users and fake ones, and face up to the fact that people are more likely than not to express radical political opinions on social media. What you read in your feed is not ‘what people think’.


Am I suggesting that you should delete all your social media accounts at once? Absolutely not. Despite its downfalls, social media can still be a great way to stay in touch with friends and keep track of trending topics; it still offers platforms on which you can express your views or your art; and if you want to see lots of videos of cute cats, there is no better place to do so.


But if you want your opinions to count when leaders and policymakers plan for the future, you need to find other ways to share your opinions. And joining a research panel that produces real data based on the responses of real people, while protecting your privacy, is one such option where you can be sure that what you write is used to strengthen your community and not to promote sales by a third-party company.

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