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BuzzKill, or Why We Don't Believe The Social Media Hype

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, January 5 2012

Illustration by David Colarusso

Here at techPresident, we're getting tired of stories or services claiming to find a clear correlation between chatter on Twitter or Facebook and the fortunes of the candidates running for president of the United States. The beginning of the new year and the Iowa caucuses seem to have brought out a fresh wave of them. The flashiest is the Washington Post's new "MentionMachine" tool "that monitors Twitter and media across the Web for political candidate mentions, revealing trends and spikes that show where the conversation is and why." It claims that "growth in the numbers of legitimate followers or a high recurrence of retweets are both indicative of growing grass-roots support."

What nonsense. There are so many ways that such changes might NOT be indicative of anything, or indicative of the opposite, that it almost seems silly to list them. A candidate might gain followers because he's entertaining to his opponents. She might gain followers because of something outrageous that she says. The same with retweets. As the saying used to go, "a link is not an endorsement." At best, it's a very low-level indication of interest, an invitation to start a relationship that campaigns need to convert into real support.

Similarly, we shouldn't take big numbers of followers or "likes" as proof that a candidate has a really engaged base. Over on Huffington Post, Alan Rosenblatt demolishes the notion that Newt Gingrich's 1.4 million Twitter followers means he's popular among Republicans. For starters, half of those accounts aren't even in the United States. Newt's numbers are a sign of online longevity and notoriety, not much more. And who can forget when Herman Cain was topping the Facebook "buzz" charts?

Rick Santorum's late surge in Iowa also puts into perspective any reliance on the raw social media numbers in determining a candidate's actual political standing. For all of last year, he trailed the pack online, but that was just a reflection of his failure to get much face time in the GOP TV debates and the general sense that as a defeated Senator, he probably wasn't national leadership material. Meanwhile, he worked Iowa the old-fashioned way and tapped into a social network that is more locally-rooted than anything Facebook or Twitter has to offer, called the evangelical church. And then he got lucky, sidestepping the negative attention and negative advertising that the other top tier candidates have experienced and dished out.

Now the issue isn't how many new followers Santorum may get online, but how well he engages them and converts these low-level indications of interest into money, volunteers and votes. As my colleagues Sarah Lai Stirland and Nick Judd pointed out yesterday, Santorum's website wasn't quite up to the task of handling the burst of traffic he earned Tuesday night, potentially costing him millions in overnight donations. Nor does his site offer supporters a way to plug themselves in, the way My.BarackObama.com or MyMitt.com invites supporters to start their own profile pages, organize their own house parties or fundraisers, and self-organize according to their own passions. As of this morning, my attempt to simply sign up for email updates at RickSantorum.com produced this result:

This is not to say that we should ignore how candidates are using social media, or how voters are using the web to affect the campaigns. That is, after all, what we do here at techPresident. But just because you can count something and put it into a chart, doesn't mean that you've gleaned its meaning. Caveat emptor.

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