I recently read an article on VentureBeat on a study that found that more than 15% of Mitt Romney’s Twitter followers are fake. The study, conducted by Barracuda Security, analyzed Romney’s account in light of the recent public discourse surrounding Romney’s suspicious followers and found that the presidential hopeful has followers “generated by paid services that artificially inflate social media influence.”
Barracuda points out that many of Romney’s Twitter supporters are shrouded in shadiness:
- Almost all of Romney’s followers’ accounts are new: more than 80% of accounts are less than three months old and 25% are less than three weeks old.
- Romney gained 150,000 followers in one day in July! (Trying to claim that this isn’t the result of follower purchasing is like trying to claim that Michelle Obama’s wardrobe isn’t 50% J. Crew, minimum).
- One in four of Romney’s followers have never sent a single tweet.
Barracuda also reports that 10% of these new followers have already been suspended from Twitter. They connect the fake-follower situation to a larger endemic termed (oh-so-dramatically) as “the underground economy of social networks.” Apparently, fake-Twitter-profile sellers are ubiquitous; the Barracuda study conjured in my mind images of “dealers” roaming the internet, offering desperate individuals an easy but underhanded way to boost their number of social media followers. A Google search for the phrase “buy Twitter followers” generates over 252 million results, and you can even find sellers on eBay.
Social Media and Social Proof
I think buying followers is a very shady practice, but I can understand why Romney (or rather, Romney’s staff) engaged in this practice. And I think the fact that Romney purchased fake Twitter profiles speaks to the issues that surround social media in general.
Here’s the dilemma Romney faces: he obviously needs votes come November, and one way to acquire votes and supporters in our social-media-savvy society is through social proof.
A brief Psychology 101 lesson: social proof is the concept that people conform to the actions of others because they believe those actions reflect correct behavior. If I walk by a restaurant or bar and see a large crowd outside, I’ll most likely think that said establishment is popular, serves good food/drinks, has a nice atmosphere, etc. because of the crowd outside. I might be inspired to try out the restaurant or bar the next time I go out.
When it comes to social media, a large Twitter following and/or a great number of Facebook likes are signs of social proof. It’s the digital version of a restaurant crowd; it’s corroboration that an account is well-known and valuable to the masses in some way: the account may provide humor, breaking news, well-written articles, or it may be a celebrity’s personal account. One the important dynamics surrounding social proof is its ability to inspire trust in everyday individuals.
I recently followed Mashable on Twitter. One of the first things I noticed is that Mashable has close to three million followers. Because so many people follow Mashable and presumably use Mashable as their source for the latest social media/tech/business news, I receive the impression that the website provides interesting and accurate news. Their large following directly inspires in me a sense of trust.
This same phenomenon comes into play with Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, and any politician on Twitter. Not only do high numbers of followers have the power to inspire trust, but they also speak to someone’s influence and clout. Mitt Romney faces a dilemma in this regard: at the moment, he has only 791,414 followers to Barack Obama’s 18.3 million. For someone who is as immersed in the public sphere as Mitt Romney, his small following presents a problem: one, because it doesn’t inspire social proof and two, it might raise doubts as to Romney’s ability to defeat Obama. Romney will be the face of the Republican Party in a few months, he doesn’t even have one million followers? Even Ron Paul has one million! For such a public figure to have a (comparatively) small number of Twitter followers simply doesn’t look good. It raises doubts when what Romney really needs to do is foster confidence in his ability to lead the U.S.
Enter, the practice of buying followers. I’m not condoning Romney’s actions, and clearly these fake Twitter profiles backfired because instead of boosting faith and trust in Romney, they’re casting doubts upon his credibility and honesty. Yet, I think the fact that Romney (or his staff) even felt compelled to buy followers speaks to the problems with this close connection between social media and politics that has pervaded contemporary culture.
What We Expect of Politicians
Eighty-two percent of U.S. adults use social media sites; social media is the medium through which we interact with people, so it’s natural that we expect brands, businesses, celebrities, and politicians to have social media accounts. Digitas conducted a study that found that 60% of people expect presidential candidates to have a social media presence; the interesting thing about this finding is this expectation is common among people of all age groups. Many people talk about how younger generations are more tech-savvy and in tune with social media, but actually over 50% in the 45-54 age group and in the 55+ age group believe that candidates should have a social media presence. Also, 51% of social media users plan to use Facebook and Twitter to learn about the presidential candidates for the upcoming election (though I’m hoping that for the sake of our country, “learning” doesn’t mean basing one’s opinion of a candidate on a Daily Show or Colbert Report video posted by a Facebook friend).
Clearly, presidential candidates, and all politicians in general, need Facebook and Twitter accounts. Fortunately, social media offers politicians several advantages. These sites place them in direct contact with the American people and allow them to easily and quickly reach a large audience. Plus, when politicians have Twitter accounts and/or Facebook profiles, they seem in touch with the public: they’re up-to-date on the latest technological trends and they use the same mode of communication used by the overwhelming majority of Americans.
Social media has officially arrived in Washington. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney tightly integrate social media into their official websites by offering people a variety of channels through which to “connect”:
Prospective voters can also like the candidates’ Facebook pages and follow them on Twitter right from the websites:
On first glance, this socialization of politics seems positive. It strengthens the connection between voters and their elected representatives. Politicians no longer seem distant and insulated in a kind of D.C. bubble that keeps them removed from the American public; instead, they are readily accessible, a mere 140 characters away. Yet, this prioritization of social media in politics isn’t all good.
When Social Media and Politics Clash
Here are my reasons why social media and politics don’t always mix, especially in the Presidential election this November:
1. Social Media Goggles
I recently wrote a blog post where I talked about the ways in which social media distorts our view of reality. Kind of like graduation goggles (shout out to HIMYM fans), social media can give us an unrealistic impression of people and events. Comparing Mitt Romney’s Twitter following to Obama’s, it would seem that Romney doesn’t have a shot at winning the Presidential Election because he has far fewer supporters. In actuality though, the latest poll from Huff Post Politics reports the numbers as: 46.8% for Obama and 45.5% for Romney. In reality, the percentages are extremely close, but one would never know that from looking at only Twitter or Facebook.
Also, there have been several infographics (like this one and this one) that pit Romney and Obama together in a social-media match and then declare Obama the winner. Obama clearly has a greater social media presence, but those numbers are not necessarily representative of reality, as the polls indicate. Maybe Romney’s social media pull is sub-par, but does that even matter? The fact that he is only 1.8% behind Obama in the polls suggests Twitter followers and Facebook likes are not the be all, end all.
2. Staff-Run Accounts
Another issue with the politics-social media combination: Mitt Romney and Barack Obama don’t run their own accounts. Barack Obama occasionally sends out his own tweets (which are signed “-bo”), but these tweets are sparse. I don’t think anyone should criticize Romney or Obama for having primarily staff-run accounts; they’re consumed by other things that are far more important than Facebook or Twitter. Yet, I think the fact that these accounts are not run by the individuals whose names they espouse conflicts with the very nature of social media: to connect to other people. We follow others, friend them, or like pages because we want to connect with them. We want to read their tweets and statuses and hear what they have to say. If Barack Obama’s account is run by his staff, I’m really not connecting with Obama at all. The same goes for Romney. I’m not reading their thoughts or opinions; I’m reading statements crafted by staff, which have a more impersonal, detached, and generic feel. Obama has over 18 million Twitter followers and over 27 million Facebook fans, so clearly people don’t mind the staff-run nature of these accounts. However, I think they are drawn to more personal social-media happenings: when Barack Obama himself sent out a tweet on the 4th of July, it received over 4,900 retweets, while all other tweets sent out on that day had far less. The candid photo of Barack and Michelle after the 2009 State of the Union is the most popular pin on Michelle’s Pinterest boards, with 762 likes and 592 repins.
3. Superfluous PR Overload
The staff-run nature of Obama and Romney’s accounts connects to a second problem that arises when social media and politics merge. Because staff send out tweets and post Facebook statuses, these accounts have a very PR-heavy feel. Many posts are like mini campaign ads.
These posts are perfect for rallying popular support and sparking word-of-mouth marketing through shares and likes, but I question the real value of these promotional posts. I’ve written before on how social media users tend to follow and like people who align with their preexisting beliefs, so in most cases, if I see a tweet sent out by Obama’s account praising the President for his support of small businesses, I’m already following Obama. Thus, I’m most likely already a supporter, and the vote I will cast in November is set. So, are these promotional posts really necessary and are they effective? They’re sent out to gather support, but I’m already a supporter. I think the only value of these posts would be if I retweeted or shared one of them with my friends, and a friend who was committed to neither the Obama nor Romney camp saw it and was influenced by it.
4. Unnecessary Apps
PR-heavy tweets and statuses aren’t the only things that are superfluous when it comes to social media. Consider an app launched by the Romney campaign called Mitt’s VP App. This app allows people to get the news on Romney’s VP as soon as it breaks. This app seems extremely unnecessary, as all the major news networks will be following the announcement of Romney’s vice presidential candidate like guys follow women’s Olympic beach volleyball. The news (coupled with intense, in-depth analysts by political pundits) will dominate broadcast networks, Twitter, websites. Do I really need to download an app? Obama also has an app (naturally) termed the Obama for America app. According to Obama’s official website, the app allows people to find local volunteer events, obtain a list of voters to talk to in their neighborhoods, access state-specific voting info, and stay up-to-date with breaking news. The site says this:
This app isn’t about being flashy—it’s about giving you the tools you need to make the biggest possible difference between now and Election Day.
Obama’s app does provide people with useful tools (it was recently named App of the Day on Gizmodo). However, despite this and the not-so-subtle dig at the Romney app, I don’t think that automatically means it is not an attempt to keep up with our technologically inundated society. I think this applies more so to Romney’s app, but oftentimes social media has a “keep up with the Jonses’ feel.” Candidates are under pressure to be tech-savvy and stay in touch with the latest digital trends; hence the apps. However, I think this attempt to keep pace can come across as a frantic (or desperate) effort, and then we get things like pointless apps. I would rather see candidates and their staff focus on things that matter rather than rolling out apps that I don’t really need.
I don’t think I’m alone in viewing various politics-related social media apps as fluff. Mitt Romney’s Facebook page that features an app called “What’s your take?” where fans can answer survey-like questions and weigh-in on key issues in the upcoming election. The question with the most responses had 1055 “weigh-ins,” meaning that 1055 people answered this question. Romney’s Facebook page has 3.6 million fans, meaning that less than 1% of his Facebook fans answered the question. It seems like most Facebook fans don’t engage with this app; thus, this app seems extraneous.
Rob Delaney: Mitt Romney’s #1 Fan
Even if we can’t expect to directly connect with Mitt Romney and Barack Obama through Facebook and Twitter, we can at least connect with their biggest supporters. There are a lot of people on Twitter who are in the Romney camp, but I think Romney’s number one fan just might be comedian and tweeter extraordinaire Rob Delaney.