EXCLUSIVE: Twitter Analysis Vindicates Gingrich in Followers Scandal

Mashable

Former House Speaker and GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich was correct in his explanation for why he has relatively few active accounts among his 1.3 million Twitter followers, an analysis requested by Mashable has revealed.

Earlier this month, Gawker published allegations from an anonymous former Gingrich staffer, who said the candidate had bought most of his Twitter followers. (Thousands of dummy Twitter accounts are available for sale on eBay for anyone who wants to boost his or her follower count.) One analysis of Gingrich's account suggested that a mere 8% of his followers were real.

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Gingrich's explanation for the mass of inactive accounts was that they followed him while he was on Twitter's Suggested User List. The SUL was a list of more than 200 accounts users might want to follow; Twitter promoted it in 2009 and 2010. There were 10 politicians on the list, including Al Gore, John McCain, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jordan's Queen Rania and Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

If Gingrich was correct, all of the politicians on the SUL would have roughly the same composition of followers. So we asked Topsy, a social media search company, to conduct an exhaustive, weeks-long analysis of the followers of every politician on the SUL.

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The result: No matter which way you slice it, nearly all political accounts on the SUL have the same levels of inactivity among their followers as Gingrich.

For example, 76% of Gingrich's followers have posted no information about themselves in the bio section of their profile. But the same is true for 68% of Rania's followers, 74% of both Booker and McCain's followers, 78% of California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom's followers and 79% of California Gov. Jerry Brown's followers.

"The followers of SUL politicians are not very active on Twitter," says Rishab Ghosh, co-founder of Topsy. "Between 74% and 90% of their followers haven't tweeted in the past month, and 30% to 41% have never tweeted at all."

So which SUL politician has the most inactive followers? Step forward Mufi Hannemann, former mayor of Honolulu. Of Hannemann's followers, 82% have no bio, 59% have Twitter's default profile image (versus 52% for Gingrich), and only 7% have posted in the past month (versus 14% for Gingrich).

Ironically, the two political accounts on the SUL that are not actual people -- @whitehouse and @downingstreet -- have far more active, human-like followers than any of the above accounts. Downing Street, the home of the British prime minister, comes off particularly well: Just 28% of its followers have no bios, 8% have the default profile image, and nearly half of them have posted in the last month.

So there is no smoking gun to suggest that Gingrich, or any of these politicians, bought any of their followers. But what this kind of analysis also reveals, says Topsy, is how hard it is to say which Twitter accounts are for real and which aren't. Spam bots are getting more sophisticated; many now have fake profile pictures, fake bios and generate fake tweets. "The fact is, a large proportion of all Twitter accounts are inactive anyway," says Ghosh.

Sorting the humans from the fakes is a problem that companies like Topsy -- and Twitter itself, which now has more than 200 million accounts -- will be wrestling with for years to come.

Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore, Flickr

This story originally published on Mashable here.

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