THE BLOG

Gauging Public Opinion? Twitter Ye Not

14/08/2017 13:27 BST | Updated 14/08/2017 13:27 BST

There is a growing trend, almost a fixation, among broadcasters and publications to use social media to monitor public mood and opinion. You can quickly lose count of the amount of times you hear 'tell us what you think' via this and that social media platform on radio and TV shows. Often we hear that 'fans' are telling us this or 'viewers' thought that. Journalists seem to find this represents a good sample of the public and that these comments reflect the mood or opinion about a football team, new song, film or TV programme.

While I have no issue with Twitter being a source for comment and opinion, there is a fundamental flaw to it being relied on to offer an insight into a broader public attitude or trend. Most people are not on Twitter. In fact, statistics for the UK suggest that fewer than a third of the population uses it. Fewer still actually tweet, with most people known as voyeurs - who read but rarely tweet themselves.

As the age range gets older of course, the percentage of people using social media falls significantly. One study (from statista.com) suggests for those aged 45-54, the number of Twitter users is 14% of the population. Of course any survey is prone to variables and therefore a study of Twitter users, for example, might give you a representative piece of research, but only representative of Twitter users; not the public in general.

I recently read a BBC story based on a new Katy Perry song, headlined that fans had given it a cold reception. It was based, as far as I could tell, on three tweets. This is not a story. Negative feedback is always more likely on social media and a few people saying something negative does not make for a story. Picking out a few feisty comments about Perry's new song seems a touch desperate. The BBC is better than that, or at least should be.

You could argue that a vox pop is an inexact science as a way of displaying public opinion and that is used daily by broadcast journalists. But that is never used as a quantitative illustration of opinion. It is merely a way to waste 20 seconds of a news bulletin or package! Going down the pub would be more illustrative of public opinion than Twitter on most occasions. At least at the pub you know these people are real. But I don't remember reading newspaper articles in the past using quotes about what was overheard in the pub the night before as ways to illustrate 'the mood'.

News reports and articles are increasingly being filled with social media reaction but it needs to be used carefully and where it adds value. Sometimes it can be funny, every now and then informative, but most of the time it simply takes up space and is a lazy way for the publication or broadcaster to get some content.