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Do Facebook and Twitter Followers Reflect a President's Popularity?

BY Becky Kazansky | Monday, July 18 2011

As momentum around the 2012 presidential elections here in the U.S. begins to build, eyes are turning to social media again and its impact on politics — but that's also true around the globe.

TechPresident is tracking social media in politics this election season as it did in 2007 and 2008, and then as now we're trying to figure out what metrics are worth following and why. For 2012, we're continuing our keen interest in how politicians adopt social media, and we're continuing the conversation on the subject.

Much has changed since 2007, when we tracked candidates' MySpace and Facebook friend counts in a time before Twitter reached wide popularity — there's lots more social media data available these days. And that makes GlobalPost's recently done “Social Media Power Rankings” — an attempt to measure the social media clout amongst heads of state around the world — seem like an inadequate effort.

While new ranking systems like Klout measure "network influence"and "amplification probability," with amounts of retweets, unique mentioners, unique retweeters, and unique commenters, Peter Gelling and producer Nicholas Dynan simply add Facebook fans and “likes” to Twitter followers, to arrive at a final, unwieldy “Total Social Media Power” number, which they pin to countries on a world map. President Barack Obama's number — 30,576,766 — is so high as to be a “statistical anomaly." In order to not throw off their visualization too much, Gelling and Dynan leave him off the first map they present.

Klout and similar services go beyond fan and follower counts — great, because fan and follower counts don't reflect how much interaction is actually going on between the social media user and their fans and followers. One popular social media consultant calls the number of Twitter followers “the most overrated metric in social media."

Klout's not perfect, though: Its algorithms won't be able to tell you how much of a politician’s social media presence is driven by artificially produced astroturfing efforts, or how many of their Twitter followers are spam bots — not people. Researchers at Indiana University have developed algorithms to track spamming techniques, using their data during the last Canadian general election to catch suspicious Twitter accounts.

Still, numbers alone don't tell the full story — they require context and analysis. Obama's astronomically high “Total Social Media Power," represented as a giant bubble on a map, doesn't clue anyone in to the fact that the administration's social media engagement efforts fell off significantly after he was elected to office in 2008, nor does that number explain the political reasons for the fall-off. Obama himself sent his first tweet — via @whitehouse Twitter handle — just a couple weeks back. The response seemed to be: “It's surprising it took this long."

Filipino president "Noynoy" Cojuangco Aquino III has the second highest “Total Social Media Power” score — 2,600,676 — yet a look at his Twitter feed shows he doesn't follow anyone back – a sign that he and his administration use Twitter the old media way: as a pure broadcasting platform. Aquino's Klout metrics show him to have racked up a total of 116 retweets, a rather low number for someone with a network spanning 551,183 Twitter followers. (For comparison, Klout tells me I've gotten 229 retweets, though I have a relatively meager 295 Twitter followers.)

The third highest score belongs to Venezuela's socialist president Hugo Chávez Frías, who famously said that “The Internet is a battle trench because it is bringing a current of conspiracy.” Of the three leaders, he's the only one to directly engage constituents by occasionally tweeting back at them on Twitter — perhaps his way of fighting the battle from the trenches.

Gelling and Dynan conflate power with popularity, but don't explain anywhere what they mean by either, or who grants that power and popularity.
Their visualization — which maps the “Total Social Media Power” of the leaders to the perimeters of their respective nations — appears to look at leader power/popularity as it applies to their on-the-ground populations, not the country of Facebook, so to speak, or the Internet at large. If so, wouldn't it make sense to account for the differences between populations?

Globalpost's rankings give Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu a score of 164,133 — a number about four times less than Egypt's Mohammad ElBaradei — who has 596,886. Should it matter that Israel's population of 7.4 million people is 11 times smaller than Egypt's 83 million? Conversely, while the percentage of Israel's population using the Internet is 49.7 percent, Egypt's is 20 percent, according to the World Bank as of 2009. How much more popular would ElBaradei be if 49.7 of Egypt's population were using the internet? The outlier, once again, is the American dataset: 78.1 percent of Americans are Internet users, and a huge chunk of those users invest substantial amounts of time engaging through social media. It makes sense that Obama got a score of 30,576,766 — his administration engages with a public that's both Internet and social media-savvy.

Gellings and Dynan claim that “social media gives us an easy way to quantify a leader's popularity,” but their metrics leave out way too many factors for any substantive quantification – and as I said, quantification will only get you so far.

We can gain insight into how heads of state and their administrations handle their digital strategy when we look at numbers and narrative, together.