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Was Twitter the TV of 2012? How Barack Obama Tracked Your Tweets

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, December 3 2012

Obama 2012's Michelangelo D'Agostino explained how the Obama campaign monitored Twitter at NOI's Rootscamp last Friday

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President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign built a set of sophisticated tools to analyze thousands of Twitter conversations, using that knowledge to figure out whether its ideas were being hijacked or surrogates were staying on message, a former Obama for America staffer said Friday.

"Twitter was not always as actionable as other things, but people had a sense that this information was out there, and people are talking very heavily about politics, and we should see what they were saying," said Michelangelo D'Agonstino, the Obama campaign's former senior analyst for digital analytics, speaking at the New Organizing Institute's Rootscamp gathering.

In 2012, Obama's campaign monitored Twitter for the tone and tenor of political conversations and how they were evolving over specific subject matters of the day, much as traditional political campaigns have evolved to monitor television news and commentary.

"There were times that I think our social media team would reach out to people, and reach out to someone who was vaguely a surrogate that wasn't in line with messaging, and they would contact them," D'Agostino said when asked what the campaign would do with all this information.

The campaign "scored" around 50,000 Twitter feeds to track their conversations using a customized social media management platform from Visible Intelligence. The campaign used natural language processing and machine learning to track how issues were playing out among conservatives and progressives. The reports were examined by senior staffers, D'Agostino said.

What It Did With The Data

One use for all this information: To identify influential people on Twitter and ask them to take actions on the campaign's behalf.

That's why some, but not all, of the President's followers would receive direct messages during the last phase of the campaign that read: "Use your Twitter influence to help turn out the vote. Follow/retweet @Obama2012 and join the Twitter Team:"

The campaign identified influential people a few different ways. The campaign's digital analytics team assessed the influence of Twitter accounts by looking at the number of tweets that users put out, and the number of followers they had, and they combined that information with additional information they had from their social media vendor.

The campaign also geo-targeted its Twitter followers in battleground states based on the location fields that those people had provided in their profiles.

"The response to the DM's was surprisingly positive," D'Agostino said in a follow-up email conversation about the program. "Even though most people knew they were probably coming from a staffer, people still felt special when they were singled out for such a novel thing."

The Obama campaign also wanted to visualize how its messages were spreading from one person to another, so its analytics staff built another tool that used the Twitter API to graph conversations around search terms. In the picture above, individual accounts are nodes, and each line is a tweet, retweet or mention.

The campaign monitored who was saying what because it gave its staffers insight into whether the president was being talked about in a positive or negative way. Its data analysts found, for example, that in early September, Obama's name was mentioned far more on Twitter than his GOP opponent Mitt Romney. But that was because conservatives were tweeting more about Obama and criticizing him.

The campaign also monitored conversations around hashtags.

"We thought constantly about hashtags that would get hijacked or co-opted," D'Agostino said. "You would try to get people to use a hashtag to talk about something, and then an hour later it would get turned around, and get used in a completely mocking fashion."

Those incidents worked both ways. D'Agostino recalled how Democrats countered the Republican National Committee's #areyoubetteroff campaign on Twitter by citing examples of how they felt better off as a result of the president's policies. They tweeted lines like: "Yes! I can stay on my parents' health insurance until I'm 26." D'Agostino said the volume of positive tweets around #areyoubetteroff eventually gained parity with the negative ones.

The president's digital team was keenly aware of the importance of memes and setting the tone online regarding how their boss was being perceived. It was a couple of staffers on the digital team who came up with the idea of posting to Twitter the picture of Obama in a chair marked "The President," with the caption "This seat's taken," as pointing to empty chairs — "Eastwooding" — blew up online after Clint Eastwood's speech to an imaginary Obama at the Republican National Convention.

"We had to give people some sense that we weren’t just going to watch the President of the United States being disrespected like that,” said Teddy Goff, Obama's 2012 digital director, during another Friday session at Rootscamp.