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From Fake Followers to Office Hours: Twitter & Politics

Meghan Spork

A rumor was recently reported that a large number Newt Gingrich’s 1.3 million twitter followers were paid. One of Gingrich’s former staffers alleged that the GOP candidate paid various companies to create fake profiles and bots to follow him and estimated that 80 percent of followers were fake. Gawker later reported that 92 percent of Gingrich’s twitter followers are fake. 92 PERCENT!

Newt Gingrich tried to use his Twitter following as leverage in his campaign. There was often speculation because his numbers were rather inflated compared to other GOP hopefuls/stars like Sarah Palin, with (620,000+) followers, and Mitt Romney the GOP front runner, with (64,000) followers. But then again, Gingrich was one of the first politicians to adopt the social media service.

All in all, Gingrich is a great example that an excessively large numbers of followers doesn’t necessarily mean much. Yes, 1.3 million followers does grant you a certain amount of bragging rights, but if they are all spambots and fake accounts, your message is falling on deaf ears. (Do spambots even have ears?!) In the end, followers don’t mean much unless you have influence and engagement to back it up.

On the other side of the aisle, in the heat of the debt ceiling debacle, Barack Obama used his Twitter account to broadcast a call to action. Throughout the day, the President’s account posted the Twitter handles of GOP representatives, urging for a #compromise. That was quite an undertaking for all 50 states (that poor intern), and was met with mixed reviews.

[blackbirdpie url="!/davemorin/status/97013203661369344"]

[blackbirdpie url="!/raysubers/status/96995479371513856"]

At the end of it all, Barack Obama lost over 36,000 followers, but the White House said the drop in followers was worth it. The call to action was answered with a strong response from Republicans via Twitter. Using social media, the President was able to spur engagement and interaction.

[blackbirdpie url="!/SenRandPaul/status/97014076240183296"]

[blackbirdpie url="!/RoyBlunt/status/97022585191137280"]

The White House Twitter account opened up a daily question-and-answer session that allowed people to ask questions of the National Economic Council regarding the debt ceiling. The program called Office Hours, opened up discussion, and attracted more than 22,000 followers in the span of six days. The @WhiteHouse account’s influence soared with Twitter mentions rising from 500 per day to over 9,000.

These particular intersections of social media and politics are prime examples of the increase in political communication over social networks. It’s a fresh form of engagement. Social media is the new way for the public to contact their elected representatives – in addition to letters, phone calls and emails. It’s a new voice.

When the President personally tweeted on his @BarackObama campaign account and asked millions of followers to call, email and tweet Congress, there was a deluge of responses. And now that most members of Congress are on social media sites, their constituents expect to be heard. One White House Aide said that he truly believed that Twitter made an impact and forced the debt ceiling debate.

With new lines of communication open, this could be the start of something great for politics in America. Utilizing a new, and very popular, channel of communication has the potential to attract more interest and further involvement. The 2012 elections are bound to be social media and technology heavy, and politicians are gearing up. In June, it was announced that President Obama scooped up Chicago Technologist Harper Reed to be the Chief Technology Officer for his campaign. It will be interesting to see how large and effective of a role social media plays in the future of politics and the outcome of the 2012 Presidential Election.