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The Game: How Campaigns' New Obsession With Social Media is Hurting America

BY Nick Judd | Monday, January 9 2012

Roemer has hired Adam and Zach Green, a father-and-son team of Twitter consultants, to help him find traction online. We know Green and son as skilled analysts of Twitter conversations, and people who we've worked with to see if we could glean anything of interest about candidates from the types of conversations being had about them. They built one of the first and most comprehensive Twitter dashboards of the election cycle. I appreciated it at the time because it tracked interesting metrics like changes in Twitter followers. Now, though, they themselves seem to have slid downward along a spiral they helped to create: Having established one of the earliest 2012 leaderboards to rank presidential candidates by @-mentions and retweets, they're at work for a candidate who then became motivated to improve his score.

Roemer's campaign now has a device through which supporters can "donate" the use of their Twitter handle to the former Louisiana governor's election effort. It uses the Twitter API to push what Team Roemer promises is no more than one tweet per day through each supporter's account, towards the stated goal of getting "1,000 accounts that share Buddy's message every day." The program picks which account passes along a message based on how often Team Roemer wants to put tweets into the tweet stream and which accounts have yet to send a message that day. There is no targeting to a volunteer's particular social connections. Once a day, the campaign wants to turn its supporters' Twitter accounts into mindless zombies — all in the name of raising stats. The campaign is achieving its desired result: Roemer's new follow rate, retweets and mention count have all gone up. This doesn't do much for the follower's investment in the campaign, or an understanding of Roemer by the public at large; it did, however, generate a glowing story on Mashable, and more white noise into a political campaign already low on signal.

Jon Huntsman's campaign has a similar set-up, offering volunteers a list of sample tweets they can push out with a press of a button. The result of this pursuit of better numbers online is more scripted, one-way campaign messaging on Twitter. What benefits come along with that new high score? Ask Herman Cain — getting the most votes still requires getting the most votes, and, you know, not being forced off the campaign trail as the result of a scandal.

All of this is kind of a bizarre twist in the long history of game theory and what it does to online politics. Now it's the politicians, and not their supporters, pursuing better results on some online scoreboard. But for years, as far back as the Howard Dean and George W. Bush campaigns of 2004, activists on the left and right have used their understanding of human motivations to build tools that try to make supporters do more than they otherwise would.

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