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Tea Party vs Netroots; Rs vs Ds: Whose Online Base is Bigger?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Saturday, September 25 2010

Two stories published in the last few days make the claim that in this cycle, the online Right is whomping the online Left. First, in Investor's Business Daily, reporter Brian Deagon's story is headlined: "Tea Party Movement A Political Tsunami, Thanks To Internet." He writes, "Democrats and their allies dominated cyberspace for years. Now the political right, with the Tea Party explosion, at the very least is matching the left." The piece points out that the Tea Party Patriots (TPP), one of the main umbrella groups, has almost four times as many Facebook supporters as the Democratic Party, and and almost five times as many as MoveOn.org. The story comes with a chart conveniently illustrating the disparity:

Also making news: a group called HeadCount has just put out a report saying that "Republicans Kicking Democrats’ Butt in Social Media." Blogger Andy Bernstein writes:

Republicans have about four times as many Facebook Fans as their Democratic counterparts, and five times as many Twitter followers. It’s a social media landslide....

Republican candidates for the Senate have amassed 1.43 million Fans on Facebook, compared to just under 300,000 for Democrats. The differential on Twitter is even more striking, where Repubican Senatorial candidates collectively have close to 520,000 Followers, and Democrats are just below 90,000.

Even when eliminating Arizona Republican Senator John McCain and California Senate hopeful Carly Fiorina, who respectively have the largest number of Facebook fans and Twitter followers, Republicans are clearly making larger inroads with social media. Without McCain and Fiorina, Republican Senate candidates average 20,985 Facebook fans and 5,892 Twitter Followers. Democrats average 8,260 and 2,591, respectively.

Tsunami. Landslide. Explosion. These are strong claims, and once the media buys into a frame, it helps reinforce and to some degree ratify its power. But while I don't doubt that there is more enthusiasm on the right side of the aisle about the coming November election, I don't think the online metrics are really so lopsided.

Sure, TPP has a lot of "likes" on Facebook, as Headcount reports. And current Republican candidates for office have more "likes" there than Democrats. But I think these numbers need more careful interpretation. The evidence shows that there is more enthusiasm on the right for its congressional candidates than on the left, or, as Patrick Ruffini recently put it, "We have a transparent view into momentum." But should we jump from that fact to concluding that the online right is now bigger than the online left? Or just that the average online backing for the current crop of Republicans is bigger than that for the average Democrat?

It isn't that Republicans in general are using social media better than Democrats and thus garnering more followers online, it's that right now there's a better fit between what those candidates are offering and what the online base is looking for. Take Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida, a feisty progressive who has bucked the Democratic mainstream with his direct attacks on Republicans. His social media following--10,500 on Twitter, nearly 29,000 on Facebook--is substantially higher than the average Republican Senatorial candidate. What that suggests is that the gap in online support is really more about the type of candidates on offer, and not just a sign of Republican challengers en masse doing better than Democratic incumbents.

Whose Base is Bigger?
Once we clear away the dust thrown into the picture by the obvious enthusiasm gap, what does the available data tells us about the actual size of the online right and online left in America?

I have two theories: first, that even with the growth on the right of the past two years, the online progressive base is still bigger than the online conservative base, and second, that the Tea Party's actual base of support--while large and important--isn't anywhere nearly as big as advertised.

The easiest way to demonstrate evidence for the first point is by looking at online political audiences. While it's true that not every reader of the DailyKos is a died-in-the-wool liberal and not every reader of HotAir (the top conservative blog) is a red-blooded conservative, it's fair to use traffic measures to both sites as one way to estimate the core base of each side. And on that front, Compete.com shows DailyKos trouncing HotAir by a wide margin almost all year, except for the month of May (perhaps due to Rand Paul's breakthrough victory in Kentucky?). The same pattern holds when you look at other top right-wing sites, like HotAir, Michelle Malkin, or PajamasMedia.com. In August, DailyKos had 1,060,000 monthly uniques, compared to 640,000 for HotAir, 568,000 for RedState, 523,000 for Pajamas Media and 488,000 for Michele Malkin.

The TeaPartyPatriots.org site, arguably the biggest online hub for the supposedly explosive movement, had just 173,000. Dick Armey's Freedomworks averages about 250,000 per month--well below the 600,000 monthly uniques garnered by ThinkProgress.org, another top progressive blog.

Tea Party Poop
And when it comes to how big the Tea Party is online, it doesn't hurt to look further at those online community hubs. Maybe Tea Party activists aren't as interested in reading, posting and commenting on blogs as they are in meeting up locally? The Tea Party Patriots says it has about 15 million adherents spread among 2,800 local affiliates, which are certainly impressive numbers if true--though the math alone implies that each local affiliate has more than 5,000 members.* Wow, right? But those numbers aren't reflected online, and frankly, the more I look into this question, the less I believe their numbers are anywhere close to that.

TPP's official Ning site, created by Mark Meckler, one of its national coordinators, shows just 78,114 current members. That's only a thousand more than the unofficial Sarah Palin Ning group "Team Sarah." Back in the spring, journalist Dante Chinni of Patchwork Nation combed through Tea Party sites and tallied about 67,000 members nationwide, another sign that the huge numbers being thrown around may be hollow. Another indicator: TPP's "Repeal the Bill" campaign to get a million signatures to repeal Obama's health care law has just 151,594 signed up; a decent number to be sure, but far from the "explosive" "tsunami"-like numbers we're being told they have.

Or take usage of Meetup, a classic tool for online activists doing grassroots organizing. The site currently shows 607 Tea Party groups with about 63,000 members, nearly all happening in the U.S. Glenn Beck's 9/12 Project shows another 333 groups, with about 39,000 members. So let's give the Tea Party/Glenn Beck crowd a total of 102,000--assuming that none of these people are double-dipping. It's a big number, but is it a tsunami? Recall that at its peak, the Howard Dean campaign had close to 200,000 Meetup participants. And either way, we're nowhere close to 15 million.

You might argue that the Tea Party movement is a more distributed "open source" phenomenon than previous online political movements, and thus we shouldn't expect to find it coalescing as visibly around one or two hubs, whether they're blog-centric or activity-centric. But that would go against every trend we've seen up til now in how attention works online, as Dave Karpf, a professor at Rutgers University who wrote his dissertation on new online forms of political association, points out:

Theoretically, a distributed network like this *must* exhibit some sort of easily-locatable hub. If I'm a potential tea party supporter in Arkansas, I'm turning to the same internet as everyone else to find local events. If there are a half-dozen sites being used for coordination, then how would I know where to go? All of the power law literature (Clay Shirky, Matthew Hindman, Albert-László Barabási) suggests that, as an online community gets big, one central coordination point necessarily emerges. So my point there is that, if it isn't Meetup or Ning or some Freedomworks-sponsored, branded hub, that's actually a pretty hefty indicator that they aren't that big. Mass movements don't become massive without easy entry points.

So what's going on? I have two conclusions. First, in the electoral realm, Republican online activists are more excited in general about their candidates than Democrats. The Obama Disconnect is also a Democratic Disconnect. But the latent base for Democrats to tap hasn't disappeared online, as numbers like those of DailyKos and Think Progress show. Democratic elites just don't understand how to motivate their base, the way Republicans are. (Hint: stop being so compromising.)

Second, journalists are getting the Tea Party-internet story backwards. While the net has certainly enabled lots of local grassroots organizing, and the Tea Party activists are definitely using the available technology to create a very decentralized and interesting network, the available data suggests that there may be only around 75,000 to 250,000 Tea Party online activists, a far cry from the seven-figure numbers we often hear floated. But because so many mainstream journalists don't understand online politics and generally have little grounding in studying grassroots activism in general, when they hear the word "Internet" they now seem to fall over themselves to give credence to whatever spin someone throws at them. Caveat emptor.

- - - - -

*By the way, if you Google "Tea Party Patriots" and "15 million" you will notice a fascinating progression. The group has steadily been increasing the number of local affiliates that it claims, from 1000 (early April 2010) to 1800 (end of April 2010) to 2000 (July 2010) to 2800 at present. And yet, they have been claiming 15 million adherents for the movement during that whole time. More local groups, but the same overall number of members. Hmmm.

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