Content Editor: Adam Daroff

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Breaking News: 0.00003% of Trump supporters said something dumb on Twitter

Did you see this? NPR Tweeted Declaration Of Independence, And Trump Supporters Flipped Out.

 I have to admit, I got a rush of Shadenfreude when I heard about this – it confirms everything thing I believe about how dumb Trump supporters really are.

But then I took a step back, and remembered that I hate stories that treat the internet comments of a few dozen people as “news,” and then use it to make claims about how millions of Americans think and act.

I know it's just meant to be fun, but I think that these sorts of articles are actually harming our ability to be talk intelligently and persuasively about politics, by feeding our most powerful biases and making us worse at constructing good arguments.

We are the 0.00003%

How many “Trump supporters” actually made these sorts of bone-headed statements? Scrolling through the various articles I’ve read on this, I count fewer than 20 separate Twitter users, (although we don’t know how many of them actually are Trump supporters!).

20 is not a lot. It could be that there were actually more articles written about these Tweets than there were people who made them

These 20 people represents about 0.00003% of the 63 million people who voted for Trump in 2016. Is it really fair to say that Trump supporters  "freaked out” because of something 0.00003% of them did? After all, it would be stupid to claim that "Bernie Sanders supporters go crazy and try to kill Republicans" based on the actions of one Sanders voter (0.000007% of the 13 million Democrats who voted for Sanders in 2016).  

OK, maybe it's more than 20. I'm going to be optimistic. Let's assume that for every one Trump voter who actually tweeted something dumb there were FIFTY more who would have tweeted if they had the chance. That would mean there are 1,000 Trump supporters who think this way. That's still just 0.002% of people who voted for Trump in 2016 - or one out of ever 500,000 Trump voters. In statistics we have a word for numbers like this: we call them "zero."

There are over 300 million Americans, and we like to talk. On any given day you can bet that somewhere in America a few dozen people are saying something really stupid.  But until the rise of Twitter, this wouldn't have been considered news. Now, if you look hard enough you can find a handful of the 300 million active Twitter users saying something really stupid about almost any topic imaginable. 

Maybe Trump supporters really are dumb. But the behavior of 0.002% of them doesn't give us any information about that - one way or the other. And because these articles feed our confirmation bias about how we want Trump supporters to act, they're like candy to us liberals. So we click. 

Bad arguments

The “OMG fifteen Trump supporters said something stupid on Twitter” stories are just one example of the traditional way we argue about politics on the internet: we find a single member (or maybe a few dozen) of the “other side” that said or did something stupid or evil, and then we write an article about how this proves that everyone on the “other side” is stupid or evil. 

As click-bait, this strategy is pretty effective, but as an argument it's really bad, because it's not persuasive. It won’t make anyone change their mind about supporting Trump (or anything else). We know this because we’re not persuaded by these sorts of arguments when the other side uses them on us. 

When Kathy Griffin tweeted an picture of her holding the decapitated head of President Trump conservative bloggers and commentators argued that it “exposed liberal hypocrisy” as well as our true violent nature

Of course this is obviously bogus. Many liberals were just as horrified and offended by what Griffin did, and the actions of any single person can’t “expose the hypocrisy” of an entire political ideology.

But that’s exactly how many conservatives see the “dumb Trump voter” stories that get thrown around. Just because a few dozen random idiots don’t recognize one of our country’s founding documents doesn’t mean they’re wrong about supporting Trump.

All in Good Fun?

Any one of these stories can be fun and entertaining. The problem is that they have become the primary way that we think about our political opponents. Between the power of the internet and the power of our confirmation bias, we use the worst 0.002% of the other side to help us paint a picture of what the other 99.998% believe. And they do the same to us. 

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