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

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

This article is a part of Personal Democracy Plus, a subscription service where we report on the newest uses of technology in politics, government, and civic life. This article is available to everyone for a limited time. You can join Personal Democracy Plus here.

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.

News Briefs

RSS Feed wednesday >

Facebook Seeks Approval as Financial Service in Ireland. Is the Developing World Next?

On April 13 the Financial Times reported that Facebook is only weeks away from being approved as a financial service in Ireland. Is this foray into e-money motivated by Facebook's desire to conquer the developing world before other corporate Internet giants do? Maybe.


The Rise and Fall of Iran's “Blogestan”

The robust community of Iranian bloggers—sometimes nicknamed “Blogestan”—has shrunk since its heyday between 2002 – 2010. “Whither Blogestan,” a recent report from the University of Pennsylvania's Iran Media Program sought to find out how and why. The researchers performed a web crawling analysis of Blogestan, survey 165 Persian blog users, and conducted 20 interviews with influential bloggers in the Persian community. They found multiple causes of the decline in blogging, including increased social media use and interference from authorities.


tuesday >

Weekly Readings: What the Govt Wants to Know

A roundup of interesting reads and stories from around the web. GO

Russia to Treat Bloggers Like Mass Media Because "the F*cking Journalists Won't Stop Writing"

The worldwide debate over who is and who isn't a journalist has raged since digital media made it much easier for citizen journalists and other “amateurs” to compete with the big guys. In the United States, journalists are entitled to certain protections under the law, such as the right to confidential sources. As such, many argue that blogging should qualify as journalism because independent writers deserve the same legal protections as corporate employees. In Russia, however, earning a place equal to mass media means additional regulations and obligations, which some say will lead to the repression of free speech.


Politics for People: Demanding Transparent and Ethical Lobbying in the EU

Today the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) launched a campaign called Politics for People that asks candidates for the European Parliament to pledge to stand up to secretive industry lobbyists and to advocate for transparency. The Politics for People website connects voters with information about their MEP candidates and encourages them to reach out on Facebook, Twitter or by email to ask them to sign the pledge.


monday >

Security Agencies Given Full Access to Telecom Data Even Though "All Lebanese Can Not Be Suspects"

In late March, Lebanese government ministers granted security agencies unrestricted access to telecommunications data in spite of some ministers objections that it violates privacy rights. Global Voices reports that the policy violates Lebanon's existing surveillance and privacy law, Law 140, but has gotten little coverage from the country's mainstream media.


friday >

In Google Hangout, NYC Mayor de Blasio Talks Tech and Outer Borough Potential

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio followed the lead of President Obama and New York City Council member Ben Kallos Friday by participating in a Google Hangout to help mark his first 100 days in office, in which the conversation focused on expanding access to technology opportunities through education and ensuring that the needs of the so-called "outer boroughs" aren't overlooked. GO

thursday >

In Pakistan, A Hypocritical Gov't Ignores Calls To End YouTube Ban

YouTube has been blocked in Pakistan by executive order since September 2012, after the “blasphemous” video Innocence of Muslims started riots in the Middle East. Since then, civil society organizations and Internet rights advocacy groups like Bolo Bhi and Bytes for All have been working to lift the ban. Last August the return of YouTube seemed imminent—the then-new IT Minister Anusha Rehman spoke optimistically and her party, which had won the majority a few months before, was said to be “seriously contemplating” ending the ban. And yet since then, Rehman and her party, the conservative Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), have done everything in their power to maintain the status quo.


The #NotABugSplat Campaign Aims to Give Drone Operators Pause Before They Strike

In the #NotABugSplat campaign that launched this week, a group of American, French and Pakistani artists sought to raise awareness of the effects of drone strikes by placing a field-sized image of a young girl, orphaned when a drone strike killed her family, in a heavily targeted region of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. Its giant size is visible to those who operate drone strikes as well as in satellite imagery. GO

Boston and Cambridge Move Towards More Open Data

The Boston City Council is now considering an ordinance which would require Boston city agencies and departments to make government data available online using open standards. Boston City Councilor At Large Michelle Wu, who introduced the legislation Wednesday, officially announced her proposal Monday, the same day Boston Mayor Martin Walsh issued an executive order establishing an open data policy under which all city departments are directed to publish appropriate data sets under established accessibility, API and format standards. GO

YouTube Still Blocked In Turkey, Even After Courts Rule It Violates Human Rights, Infringes on Free Speech

Reuters reports that even after a Turkish court ruled to lift the ban on YouTube, Turkey's telecommunications companies continue to block the video sharing site.