Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

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.

News Briefs

RSS Feed today >

Mark Pesce on "Hypercivility" at @CivicHall

A week ago, digital ethnologist Mark Pesce gave a talk here at Civic Hall on the topic of "Hypercivility." As you will see from watching the video, it's an extension of years of research and thinking he has done on the effects of hyperconnectivity on our world. Be forewarned, this is not an "easy" talk to watch or digest. While Pesce definitely has our social-media-powered "Age of Outrage" on his mind, he grounds his talk in a much more serious place: post-genocide Rwanda, which he recently visited. GO

First POST: Impossibles

The FCC vote; a proxy Democratic primary battle in Chicago; Gov Andrew Cuomo begins deleting all state employee emails more than 90 days old; men talking about women in tech; and much, much more. GO

wednesday >

First POST: Off the Books

Chicago's "black site"; The New York Times reports "little guys" like Tumblr and Reddit have won the fight for net neutrality but fails to mention Free Press or Demand Progress; Hillary Clinton fan products on Etsy to inspire campaign slogans?; and much, much more. GO

tuesday >

First POST: Challenges

How Silicon Valley donors are thinking about Hillary Clinton 2016; Yahoo's security chief locks horns with the head of the NSA; Instagram location data catches a Congressman with his hand in the till; and much, much more. GO

monday >

First POST: Bows

CitizenFour wins best doc; Ken Silverstein resigned from First Look Media and took to Facebook to vent; why we need more Congressional staffers; who profits from the net neutrality debate; banning PowerPoint presentations; and much, much more. GO

friday >

First POST: Sim Pickings

Using stolen encryption keys, the NSA and GCHQ can intercept and decrypt communications between billions of phones without notifying the service provider, foreign governments or users; get to know Sarah Harrison, the WikiLeaks editor who helped Snowden gain asylum in Russia; a profile of the Fight for the Future leaders; how the new wave of black community organizing is not hashtag activism; and much, much more. GO

More