Nobody Is On Twitter

Terrell Jermaine Starr has a piece at the Washington Post titled “On Twitter, Bernie Sanders’s supporters are becoming one of his biggest problems.” In it, he argues “the social media battles have shown that Sanders’s supporters also have become a major hurdle for the candidate in building a positive image with the black electorate.”

As evidence for this, he shares the following:

  1. He points to a number of tweets sent by random Bernie Sanders’s supporters to prominent black pundits and the Seattle Times.
  2. He cites a political consultant who notes that Bernie Sanders has not done an interview with black press where he apologized for comments his random supporters have made on Twitter.
  3. He observes that Bernie Sanders’s supporters have pointed out his good record on civil rights and the backlash to that via the #BernieSoBlack hashtag.
  4. He muses about how this reminds him of Occupy Wall Street.
  5. He notes Bernie Sanders has not tweeted condemnation about his random supporters’ tweets from his campaign twitter account.

These things certainly make a strong case for explaining why Starr is deeply annoyed by Sanders’ Twitter trolls, but it’s extremely hard to understand how they make a case for his thesis that “the social media battles have shown that Sanders’s supporters also have become a major hurdle for the candidate in building a positive image with the black electorate.” The claims “I am annoyed” and “pundits like me are annoyed” are different from the claim “a massive population bloc of 40 million people is annoyed.”

Nobody Is On Twitter
Internet writers live on Twitter and it greatly distorts their understanding of reality. According to Pew, around 85% of American adults are internet users. Of those adults, only 23% use Twitter. The number is slightly higher at 27% for blacks.

I would venture to guess that most of these Twitter users do not use Twitter like Starr does, probably do not follow politics much (if at all), and have basically nobody in their mentions ever about anything. That’s the nature of Twitter. A few superstar accounts get a bunch of followers and interactions, while the rest don’t Tweet all that much, and only have a handful of followers, probably mostly people they know.

It just seems wildly improbable that the negative Twitter experiences of a tiny slice of heavily-followed pundits on a social media platform that less than a quarter of the online adult population uses has any effect on the voting trends of a 40 million person group. As someone who loves Twitter, this can be hard to admit, but ultimately Twitter is an ephemeral online forum that nobody really uses, and our tiny politics subpocket of Twitterdom almost certainly has no effect on anything.

Nobody Knows Who Bernie Sanders Is
One of the stranger things about this genre of writing (and I’ve read a number of pieces in it so far, including for Latinos) is how detached it generally is from what the polling tells us about Bernie. Starr, to his great credit, does not make this mistake. At the beginning of his piece, he actually cites to a Gallup poll breaking down candidate favorability by race, and notes briefly that lack of name recognition is one of the things weighing Bernie down among black voters.

There are two interesting things about this name recognition data.

First, notice that 67% of blacks are not familiar with Bernie Sanders. He actually has less name recognition than George Pataki, to put this in perspective. Only 8% of black people lack familiarity with Hillary Clinton. The lack of familiarity is clearly the major driving force behind anything related to Bernie and black people. It dwarfs any other effect you might possibly ever point to. Yet, in this genre of writing, if it gets mentioned at all, it’s treated as a little preliminary note prior to the exposition on the real reason Bernie is failing.

Second, lack of name recognition is totally inconsistent with the “black people are annoyed by Bernie Sanders’ supporters on Twitter” theory. Being harassed by Bernie Sanders people on Twitter would make you know who he is and then, likely, make you unfavorable towards him because of the bad experience. But you can’t simultaneously dislike Bernie Sanders because people are making you mad on Twitter about him and also have never heard of him. This is true beyond Twitter stuff as well. Any theory that says black people don’t like Bernie because of X is entirely undermined by the fact that black people have no idea who he is. He can’t both be disliked for a specific reason and be totally unknown. Right?