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In Social Media and Politics, Engagement and Influence Trumps Follower Count

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PRESIDENTIAL PROCLAMATIONS
AP

The White House may not quite be up to real-time disclosure, but as the Obama administration continues to step up its online engagement efforts in the real-time political debate online, we can take away some important lessons from the results.

The hyperpartisan atmosphere in Washington has replicated itself online with both predictable outcomes, like hot rhetoric on blogs and social networks, and novel scenarios, like critiques of New York Times social media reporter Jennifer Preston for asking the White House what hashtag it was using.

When Twitter exploded over the debt deal this summer, we saw something new. Both sides of the aisle pushed online to scrap the deal.

Regardless of the outcome of the vote on the deal in Congress, the volume of political communication over social networks last week offered a blistering window into what the nation can expect when the 2012 election season heats up next year.

In Washington and other capitols around the world, legislatures and executive offices now operate in a 24 hour stream of live updates and social discussion. Make sure not to be dazzled by the glitz of social media, though: Election 2012 will be about the data.

Social media has now become a complementary channel for the public to contact their government officials and elected representatives, alongside the phone, town halls, letters and email. When President Obama personally Tweeted for the second time on his campaign account, @BarackObama, he asked his millions of followers to call, email and Tweet Congress.

That Tweet-to-action capped an intense week in which the president addressed the nation on the debt crisis and called for the public to engage. After his call to action, House and Senate websites were swamped with electronic interest, resulting in many citizens turning to Facebook and Twitter to reach their members of Congress. With a majority of Congressional staffers on social media, those citizens now expect to be heard.

When the president's campaign account was used to advocate for #compromise 113 times in one day, however, the volume and nature of the updates created a backlash that extended well beyond Twitter. The widely shared headline that @BarackObama lost some 36,000 followers through the campaign, however, missed some important angles.

First, the accusations that the president's campaign was "spamming" the nation rely largely on a broad misunderstanding of spam and Twitter alike. (This is not an uncommon condition in mainstream media.) If someone opts in to follow a given account on Twitter, it's not accurate to call subsequent Tweets "unsolicited bulk electronic messaging." On Twitter, the only @spam is follow-spam and @reply spam. A given account can lodge a complaint if @mentions are abused. In this case, the @BarackObama account @mentioned Congressional Twitter accounts once, not multiple times. Followers can just unfollow, as some users did. On Twitter, using the @names of other users is like adding links to blog posts. In this case, given reported increases in the followers of the Congressional accounts mentioned, the president's campaign account may have linked up more citizens to their representatives online.

Second, as Rachel Sklar pointed out at Mediate, lost followers are a "tempest in a teapot." The lost followers represent less than 0.3 percent of the 9.4 million total. While Sklar acknowledged what many critics have pointed out -- 113 Tweets is a huge increase over the normal daily volume -- using one of the world's most-followed social media accounts as a "real-time communication node" that asked followers to do something is noteworthy.

This whole silly brouhaha raises the question of "What is Twitter for?" Is it for sharing important information -- or for jealously hoarding followers? For the President of the United States -- and for anyone in government -- it should always be the former. We're all pretty jaded about Twitter now, but what we saw yesterday was something incredibly cool: a centralized communications hub sending out actionable information quickly, efficiently and measurably. That is pretty incredible, and we are certainly going to see more innovation in how Twitter and other social media is used to campaign and message as 2012 gears up.

Finally, as Micah Sifry wrote at techPresident, the lost followers are no "big whoop" -- the account has gained 37,000 followers since Friday. In general, follower count is one of the worst statistics to use in analyzing someone's political influence online. Social media success isn't just about followers: it's about the influence and engagement an account holds on a given network. In general, amplification and engagement, measured in retweets, @mentions and @replies, and influence, measured in blogs and mainstream media coverage, offer better metrics to analyze campaigns.

For instance, after the introduction of "White House Office Hours" this summer, the @WhiteHouse account received 450 percent more @mentions than before. (You can see the #WHChats collected at the White House Storify account). In this context, it's of note that the operators of the @WhiteHouse Twitter account now routinely natively retweet other accounts participating in online chats. While some of these Tweets will leave followers without context for the Tweet, the White House appears to have shifted its online strategy to one of engagement versus the lower risk style broadcasting that most politicians adopt online. To date, many of the president's political opponents have not followed suit.

At a high level, it's unclear how much these #WHChats or the #compromise campaign are influencing the national debate on the economy or other issues, given the difficulty of parsing out Twitter versus other social media channels, broadcast and print media. After all, 75 percent of the nation is online, and of that proportion, only 10-15 percent is on Twitter.

At least one influential White House staffer, however, indicated that Twitter factored into the resolution of the debt debate. White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer affirmed to New York Times reporter Brian Stelter that email and Tweets from constituents influenced the debt ceiling deal, along with phone calls. It's also unclear what evidence Pfeiffer is basing his affirmation upon. (Requests to the White House for comment went unanswered.)

Reuters social media editor Anthony de Rosa collected anecdotal evidence based upon replies from his followers, but the sample isn't large enough to draw any conclusions. What we do know is that the velocity of political messaging ratcheted up another notch this summer, with no sign of slowing down. Given the lead that Republicans currently hold in the social media landscape, Election 2012 is going to be interesting.

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