Why Twitter Is Unlikely To Become The ‘Digital Town Square’ Elon Musk Envisions
Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.
On Monday, Elon Musk, the tech entrepreneur, chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX and currently the world’s richest man, struck a deal to buy Twitter for about $44 billion. Twitter users have been tweeting all week about what it means — in large part because it’s not clear how Musk, who plans to take the company private, will change the platform.
In his statements about his intent to buy Twitter, Musk espoused the importance of free speech to democracy, calling the social media platform “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.” He also stressed that he is against censorship. Many have interpreted this as Musk wanting to significantly alter how Twitter regulates hate speech and misinformation.
But the digital town square Musk is envisioning might not materialize because Twitter has never lived up to its goal of being a marketplace of ideas. More than that, Americans seem to dislike the social media platforms that forgo content moderation entirely, with anything-goes platforms never being quite as popular as the larger platforms that limit some of what users see. A town square that is a free-speech free-for-all risks becoming the kind of place that few people want to visit, which serves as its own limit on the kind of speech it fosters.
Twitter as it exists now fills a particular spot in the social media ecosystem. Almost all the information we have shows that Twitter, even more than some other platforms, is used by a relatively small percentage of Americans. Important people like politicians, business leaders, journalists and celebrities do make statements or announcements on Twitter that have real-world consequences, and it has been useful for activism, serving as a starting point for the evolution of new political conversations and movements. Black Twitter users, in particular, report finding Twitter useful in this way. Overall, though, Twitter might be more accurately described as a scrolling newspaper than a public square. Other social media sites, like Facebook, stretch farther into the information ecosystem and are likelier to reveal what most Americans are currently reading, sharing and saying.
The Pew Research Center conducts regular surveys on social media use in the United States, and the most popular networks across demographics and political affiliation remain, by far, YouTube and Facebook. As of early 2021, 81 percent and 69 percent of American adults, respectively, reported using these two sites, and the majority of each site’s users visited frequently. This is particularly true of Facebook: 71 percent of users said they visited the site daily, and nearly half of all users visited multiple times a day.
By comparison, just under a quarter of American adults reported being on Twitter. And according to a Pew study released in April 2019, only a tiny portion (10 percent) of its adult users in America made up 80 percent of all tweets from that same group. And according to another Pew survey from 2021, only a very small share of tweets from American adults (14 percent) were original content. In other words, these users are mostly retweeting, quote-tweeting or replying.
So if Twitter seems like a place where random funny thoughts or outrageous statements go viral and quickly become the topic of the day, there may be evidence for that. It’s in this way that Twitter turns conversations into kind of a game, with likes and other metrics that amplify the feeling of winning or losing, and so the people on Twitter are those who like to play that game.
The average Twitter user is younger, more highly educated and wealthier than the average American adult, and is also likelier to identify as a Democrat. That’s especially true of very active Twitter users, who also post heavily about politics. These users are slightly likelier to say that immigrants strengthen American society and to see evidence of societal bias against women.
Conservatives have said they feel censored on Twitter, especially after former President Donald Trump was banned following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. But conservatives may be less likely to find friendly reception on Twitter because it’s just not their audience — and not because they’re targeted, as they claim.
And relaxing rules, which many think Musk will do, might not bring many conservatives back to the fold. In fact, most of the platforms that have tried to lure conservatives with relatively little content moderation never really took off, except arguably Telegram, which could have more to do with its encrypted-messaging option and private chat groups.
While it’s too early for much polling on how Americans feel about Musk’s purchase of Twitter, a Momentive poll released on Monday found that 41 percent of Americans thought favorably of Musk (31 percent didn’t know). Fifty-three percent thought Twitter was headed in the right direction as a company, and a plurality of adult Twitter users in the U.S. (43 percent) said Musk would have a positive effect on the platform’s direction. Overall, though, 66 percent of Americans said that social media does more to hurt than help free speech and democracy. That reasoning, however, broke starkly along partisan lines: Republicans were likelier to say speaking freely online was important, while Democrats were likelier to think it was more important that people felt safe and welcome online.
In the days since Twitter accepted his offer, Musk has criticized some of its executives, accusing them of left-wing bias, and Twitter employees are reportedly emotional and uncertain about their futures. Ben Collins at NBC News also reported that Twitter confirmed that notable fluctuations in some users’ follower counts indicate some users are leaving while others are joining.
Perhaps more than other social media platforms, the nature of the Twitter conversation will ultimately be shaped by who’s on it and how users feel about what they see. Musk has said his intended changes to Twitter will “unlock” its potential, but so far, Twitter’s influence has stemmed from its small but elite cadre of avid users who have the power to amplify the conversations they see there. It’s also the group most likely to quickly adapt to using a different app that meets their needs and fulfills their goals if Twitter changes in ways they dislike.
Other polling bites
- Thirteen percent of Americans ages 65 years and older remained completely unvaccinated against COVID-19, according to data recently released by the COVID States Project. However, the majority of older Americans (71 percent) were fully vaccinated and boosted, although there are pretty big differences based on education and income level. Fifty-seven percent of those with some high school education were fully vaccinated and boosted, as were 60 percent of those making $25,000 or less per year — both much lower rates than among those with a graduate degree or an annual income of $100,000 or more (both 83 percent).
- Americans strongly supported admitting up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, according to an April 1-19 poll from Gallup. Seventy-eight percent of Americans said they were in favor, while only 21 percent were opposed. This is the highest level of support out of the various refugee crises that Gallup has polled. (The polls go back to 1939.). Likewise, an April 23-24 poll from Morning Consult also found high levels of support, with 72 percent of registered voters saying they supported resettling Ukrainian refugees in the U.S.
- Shortly after a judge struck down the national mask mandate on airplanes and other forms of public transit last week, some evidence has emerged that a slim majority of Americans are opposed to such mandates. According to an April 21-25 poll from Quinnipiac University, 51 percent of Americans did not support mask mandates on airplanes, while 46 percent did support them. However, 56 percent said they’d continue to wear masks on airplanes even if not required to do so. Masking on other forms of public transportation, like buses, subways and trains, saw a similar split in the poll.
- Forty-six percent of Americans said they have experienced more extreme weather in their area in recent years, while 54 percent said they haven’t, according to an April 5-8 poll from CBS News/YouGov. Of those who said they have experienced more extreme weather, 62 percent reported that it’s made them more concerned about climate change, 30 percent said it hasn’t changed their opinion and 8 percent said it’s made them less concerned. Of course, opinions on this are strongly divided across party lines, with Democrats (74 percent) who have experienced more extreme weather far more likely than Republicans (37 percent) to say they are now more concerned about climate change.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,1 41.7 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 52.5 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -10.8 points). At this time last week, 41.8 percent approved and 52.3 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -10.5 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 41.7 percent and a disapproval rating of 53.1 percent, for a net approval rating of -11.4 points.
In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot,2 Republicans currently lead by 2.5 percentage points (45.2 percent to 42.6 percent). A week ago, Republicans led Democrats by 2.3 points (44.6 percent to 42.3 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Republicans by 2.1 points (44.4 percent to 42.3 percent).