Twitter is not real life, but, since it was launched in 2006, the platform’s influence has steadily spread. The platform now boasts 330 million active users worldwide. That sounds like a lot, but it amounts to only 4.2% of the world’s population. And active users include anyone who checks Twitter at least once a month. Less than 1.9% of those active users (about 6.25 million people) check Twitter daily. The number of people who post content is smaller still. A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that 80% of that content is generated by 10% of users. Yet that tiny percentage of a percentage of the world seems to have taken humanity by storm, arguably swaying elections, transforming economies, building communities and tearing them down. How has such a tiny group come to occupy such a pivotal position?
In 1906, mathematician Vilfredo Pareto noticed, with surprising consistency throughout history, about twenty percent of Italians had owned about eighty percent of the region’s land. Before long, Pareto was finding the same 80/20 split everywhere he looked. For example, in his own back garden, Pareto noted that twenty percent of the pea plants produced eighty percent of the peas. Ever since, mathematicians have noticed this commonly occurring ratio, both in human society and in the natural world: twenty percent of movies generate eighty percent of ticket sales; twenty percent of criminals commit eighty percent of crimes, etc. In many situations, a minority comes to hold a majority share of the influence, not by legal writ, but by natural law. This is not always bad. But when minorities turn monarchical troubles arise. With this statistical phenomenon on their side, these minorities often do not even need to seize power: it accrues to them naturally.
Another thing that may help a minority gain outsized power is inflexibility. In his book on asymmetrical social influence, Skin in the Game, Nassim Nicholas Taleb relates how a colleague of his noticed that, when he hosts a party, most men prefer to drink beer, and most women prefer to drink wine, but if he serves only beer, most of his women guests won’t drink it, whereas if he serves only wine, most of the men will drink it—they tend to be less particular. Since serving wine and beer is extra trouble, if he knows that at least ten percent of his guests will be women, he serves only wine and not beer. The intransigent minority’s tastes prevail. Yet another factor, Taleb says, is how high the stakes are for the minority. With enough skin in the game, a subgroup of only three percent of the population can often sway the rest; an even smaller minority can do so if they have no other options, or nothing to lose.
With the advent of social media, politics has undergone a phase transition. In his 2019 paper, “Algorithmic Populism and Algorithmic Activism,” Ico Maly describes how the use of algorithms to convey and shape popular opinion has created a huge opportunity for technocratic manipulation. Across the entire mediascape, using algorithms to hijack people’s attention and maximise profit has become standard practice. Concerns about Google’s page-rank algorithms, YouTube monetization and Facebook personalization grow by the day. And it’s not only search engines and corporate owners of social media platforms that engage in this practice. Some social media influencers hire click-farms to artificially boost their Instagram posts, and Amazon reportedly pays people to push back against anti-Bezos rhetoric on Twitter, without disclosing their Amazon affiliation.
Backed by big data, computation is redefining popularity. As a professor of digital media, José van Dijck saw the writing on the wall nearly a decade ago: “Numbers matter. Popularity is a coded and quantified concept and as such it is manipulable.” On the internet, measures of social and political popularity are reduced to manipulable metrics. For many people, their public reputation is no longer formed primarily by neighbourly chats or workplace conversations, but by lines of code whose inputs and outputs run untraceably through the black-box algorithms of big tech. Yet “the number of followers, likes, and retweets are political facts,” Maly laments. Whether popularity emerges from grassroots interactions or AstroTurf ones, metrics matter. People intuitively give as much credence to these digital measures of public opinion as they did to the old-fashioned kind. But why do they do this?
In 1977, zoologist John Krebs came up with what he dubbed the beau geste hypothesis: the idea that some birds make a lot of noise to create the illusion that there is a multitude of them. In effect, they are faking followers, avian style. Similarly, tribes of tweeting humans, hidden behind screens rather than trees, have raised the art of social gaslighting to new heights. Thanks to the digitalization of the social sphere, the beau geste hypothesis now applies to human behaviour: Twitter is a dream megaphone for mouthy minorities. Behind many Twitter campaigns, there may often be only a handful of keyboard warriors, and behind many instances of Twitter hounding, a couple of lone and lonely wolves. So, before you seek shelter from a tweetstorm, do a quick headcount as a reality check. When it comes to Twitter, remember that what seems like the many is actually the few—and keep in mind just how few. Twitter is not real life. It is barely a fraction.