The power of social media polls: deeply unhelpful or frivolous fun?

When they're taken too seriously they can cause misinformation and polarisation, says one expert

Twitter was the first major social media platform to incorporate polls in 2015. iStockPhoto
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You could sometimes be forgiven for thinking that all social media platforms are slowly converging to become very similar indeed. If a feature becomes popular on TikTok, you can bet that an almost identical thing will soon appear — with a different name, naturally — on Instagram, Snapchat or both. (Or vice versa.)

Twitter borrows from Facebook borrows from TikTok, to the point where status updates, newsfeeds, disappearing messages, stickers and live broadcasts become de rigueur across the board, and any distinguishing features between the platforms seem pretty minimal.

Slightly under the radar, but equally commonplace, are polls. Our eagerness to answer multiple choice questions on our smartphones has seen the introduction of polling features right across social media, and now into messaging apps.

According to screengrabs posted online, the world’s most popular platform, WhatsApp, will be the next to succumb, thereby allowing groups of people to have swift votes on urgent matters of the day rather than engage in lengthy discussion. Unsurprisingly, a rival app, Telegram, already has such an option. Why have new ideas when you can borrow them?

What is a straw poll?

It’s not difficult to see why ad hoc straw polls prove so popular with audiences and platforms alike. After all, there’s no quicker way to get people engaging with a topic, no easier way to give them a voice — albeit with a single click — and no better way to keep them hanging around to see how everyone else voted.

The phrase “straw poll” was first used in the early 19th century and was derived from the practice of throwing up a piece of straw to see which way the wind was blowing. Today on social media, with many winds blowing in thousands of different directions at once, the idea of trying to tabulate those opinions to get a sense of the prevailing mood is a rather compelling.

Instagram polls have been used to get people to vote on everything from the middle name of an influencer’s newborn baby to the next manager of Everton Football Club

Twitter was the first major platform to take the plunge in 2015, making it easy to create polls with two (and later up to four) choices for people to vote on. Instagram incorporated them into its Stories feature in 2017, so influencers far and wide could ask their followers to vote on such pressing matters as what they ought to wear that day.

Shortly afterwards, they started appearing in Facebook Groups, too. More recently, Spotify has launched listener polls on its streaming music platform in order to “create fun gamification that keeps listeners coming back”, according to its official announcement. Reddit, meanwhile, has chosen the ultimate form of gamification with its Prediction Tournaments feature. This combines user polling with a form of gambling (with tokens), where everyone competes to correctly predict the outcome of an event, or even the vote itself.

The power of polls

The ability of polls to attract attention and keep us engaged has made them much beloved of online marketers, and we’ve seen brands become very keen to poll us on all kinds of questions, whether they’re relevant to their products or not. Starbucks famously asked customers to choose the colour of its new summer drink via an Instagram poll, but the reasons why a shoe brand should ask for our views on last night’s television are less obvious.

Many individuals treat Twitter polls as valid representation of public opinion… The result is increased cacophony, misinformation and polarisation in social media and beyond
Ozan Kuru, assistant professor at the Department of Communications at the National University Of Singapore

Instagram polls have been used to get people to vote on everything from the middle name of an influencer’s newborn baby to the next manager of Everton Football Club, and across Facebook and Twitter there are masses of low-level customer surveys dressed up as entertainment alongside political surveys trying to gauge the public mood. There’s no question that such polls are very good at collecting data. What that data actually means — if anything — is another question entirely.

Twitter says of its polls feature: “If you want the public’s opinion on anything — what to name your dog, who will win tonight’s game, which election issue people care most about — there’s no better place to get answers.” Those answers, however, are massively skewed by whichever social media bubble the poll ends up being shared within.

'Divisive, misleading and deeply unhelpful'

“They are not systematically conducted and therefore cannot represent public opinion,” writes Ozan Kuru, assistant professor at the Department of Communications at the National University Of Singapore. “Yet surprisingly, many individuals — ordinary citizens, public officials and political leaders — treat Twitter polls as valid representation of public opinion … The result is increased cacophony, misinformation and polarisation in social media and beyond.”

FullFact, a UK-based fact-checking organisation, echoes this view: “Twitter polls are meaningless for understanding anything other than the views of the specific people who answered the poll.”

Within a service such as WhatsApp, where groups are limited to relatively small numbers of people (256, to be precise) and aren’t publicly visible, there may be genuine value to a polling feature, allowing groups to perhaps co-ordinate their diaries and make quick decisions on the hoof. But its competitor, Telegram, allows up to 200,000 people to participate in its public and private groups, and suddenly all those disclaimers about polling being a potential source of misinformation absolutely apply.

The recent viral poll on Twitter which sought to establish whether there were more doors or more wheels in the world was a beautiful and frivolous example of how polling can be fun.

But we live in a world full of complex questions with complex answers. Boiling them down to a poll might seem hugely appealing, and the results might seem fascinating at first blush, but they can be divisive, misleading and deeply unhelpful. We’d be wise to be wary of them.

Updated: March 20, 2022, 11:44 AM