National Journal Column: Twitter (X) is not real life

Wednesday, July 10th, 2024

The surgeon general wants to put a warning label on social media to warn about the potential for harm to children’s mental health. Research shows that kids get a warped view of the world and themselves from social media.

While children’s wellbeing is obviously the highest concern, there is a larger lesson here – social media distorts our understanding of everything. Including politics.

Over the last two decades, we’ve seen an explosion of media sources—social and not—as technology has eased the flow of information. The vast array of media choices available allow people to consume only media that aligns with their political preferences. As a Pew Research report shows, those who hold the strongest ideological views are most likely to create “news bubbles” in which they only hear what they want.

That is certainly true on social media, from which about 15 percent of Americans say they get their news exclusively. Although partisans of both stripes are on social media in similar numbers, the nature of social media allows people to curate only the organizations, news outlets, and opinion leaders they want to hear from. In most cases, we’re going to choose to follow accounts that we agree with and that align with our interests.

But the ideological isolation gets worse when we look at who is posting political content. Take X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, as an example: Most politicians, many political reporters and commentators, and other various political actors have a public presence on the site, in addition to official news outlets. Those people attract more political junkies to the site, and it becomes a self-feeding echo chamber of the most connected, attentive people talking to each other.

It’s a tiny slice of the population doing this. In 2023, Pew found that only about 22 percent of Americans have used X/Twitter—ever. A 2019 study found that among then-Twitter users, 10 percent of tweeters were responsible for 80 percent of the site’s content. The remaining 90 percent of users averaged two tweets per month. To translate that to all Americans, roughly 2 percent of the population is responsible for 80 percent of what makes it onto the site.

And that’s for all content—political content is driven by an even smaller slice. You might think “but it’s so many people!”—well, yes, numbers-wise it is: 2 percent of American adults are more than 5 million people, so even if half a percent are posting about politics, we have more than a million users involved. It’s a lot of people—but not at all representative people. The people posting and interacting with politics are part of an elite group who care enough about the topics and have the spare time to get online and discuss it, often with strangers. In short, we’re weirdos.

The problem is that many of these posters lose touch with what happens off the site. In a recent example, Democrats on X were generally very upset by and opposed to President Joe Biden’s executive order on immigration policy. Yet when a poll on the topic emerged, 76 percent of Democrats favored the action. The more progressive-leaning Democrats on X were shocked and dismayed.

The really big problem comes when political actors, including reporters, interpret opinion on X as indicative of actual widespread opinion. Or, more insidiously, their own thinking is subconsciously swayed by what they see on X, and it infiltrates their work. I will admit to sometimes scrolling on X when I am not sure of what to write in this column—I can’t imagine I am alone among political writers in doing that.

Many users don’t recognize the bubble they exist in, either. I often end up arguing with other X users that average people who are not on X do not pay as much attention to politics as those of us on the site do, and that it’s not a moral failing for people to be busy living their lives and not paying hyper close attention to politics. Political junkies don’t take kindly to that assertion.

I always end up frustrated by those debates. I spend a lot of time on X, but I also listen to voters for a living via public opinion research. Those who don’t have a lens into life outside the bubble can be impossible to reason with—they believe their views, and the views of those they follow, represent what the world does and should think. The cycle of polarization continues.

Weekly column written by Vice President Natalie Jackson for National Journal.

This column was originally published on June 18, 2024, on and is owned by and licensed from National Journal Group LLC.