Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
If you believe what you read on Twitter, you might think the Democratic electorate is made up entirely of proto-socialists trying to “out-woke” each other in a daily outrage Olympics.
But while social media mobs are loud, they’re not the real deal.
Study after study shows that if you are getting your opinion of the political state-of-play primarily from social media platforms, you’re barking up the wrong feed. Or, as CNN’s Harry Enten put it, “Want to understand the 2020 Democratic primary? Stay off Twitter.”
He points out that Democratic electorate polls consistently put Joe Biden ahead of Bernie Sanders in the 2020 race. But you might get the opposite impression if you were looking only at social media. As Enten writes, “Fans of other candidates (especially Sanders) make their presence known quite loudly….”
In other words, there’s a sample set bias. Pew Research dug into this and found that liberal Democrats are especially likely to use social media. Throw in social media algorithms that show people what they are interested in, and this can easily lead to a hive mind.
Approximately half of Democrats who describe themselves as moderate or even conservative are far less likely to proselytize on social media. That’s not to say that there isn’t a growing progressive movement in the Democratic party. But it’s not disproportionately dominant. And remember, the number one issue for Democrats in 2020 isn’t ideological purity, but who can beat Donald Trump.
This disparity was displayed on the front page of the New York Times Tuesday in an article titled, “The Democratic Electorate on Twitter Is Not the Actual Democratic Electorate.” The Times piece features graphics that show that this “outspoken group of Democratic-leaning voters on social media is outnumbered” by the more centrist and more diverse Democratic voters who are less likely to post political content online.
And all along, we thought the “silent majority” was just a Republican phenomenon.
All this goes hand in hand with the fact that social media tends to skew younger and more liberal. Consider this: Enten’s analysis shows that among Democrats who use Twitter, those under 50 outnumber the overall population of Democrats by almost 20 points. But that doesn’t represent the reality of the Democratic electorate or the fact that older Americans are far more likely to actually go out and vote.
So while social media can give the impression of being a direct connection with the Democratic street, it actually over-samples a new kind of activist elite.
It amplifies ideological divides, often drowns out dissent from liberal orthodoxy and leads to what former President Barack Obama recently described as a “circular firing squad, where you start shooting at your allies because one of them is straying from purity on the issues.”
Look, social media is an amazing tool. It’s changed the way we communicate. It can help democratize objectively oppressive regimes overseas. But as we’ve all seen, it’s also highly susceptible to being hijacked by hyper-partisans as well as trolls and bots on a disinformation mission to divide.
So don’t mistake this virtual world for what’s actually happening in Main Street America.