Why social media couldn't predict the Iowa race

The issue isn't how many new followers presidential hopeful Rick Santorum gets online, but how well he engages them.

Story highlights

  • Micah Sifry: Growth in followers and retweets are signs of low-level interest
  • Counting something and charting it doesn't mean you've proven anything, he says
  • Sifry: Rick Santorum's surge should put the mania for buzz-tracking into perspective

For years, bloggers and other netizens have repeated: "A link is not an endorsement."

Now it appears that we have to add, "a 'like, 'follow' or 'retweet' is not an endorsement, either."

That's the only way to respond to the wave of breathless news stories and fancy web tools claiming to divine all kinds of correlations between Twitter buzz or Facebook followers and how the GOP presidential candidates will fare in the primaries.

The worst of the new wave is The Washington Post's new MentionMachine tool "that monitors Twitter and media across the Web for political candidate mentions, revealing trends and spikes that show where the conversation is and why." It claims that "growth in the numbers of legitimate followers or a high recurrence of retweets are both indicative of growing grass-roots support."

Groan.

Micah Sifry.

Actually, growth in followers or high numbers of retweets are just an indication of notoriety or celebrity. Saying simple, stupid things that lots of people want to tell their peers about can get you tons of followers and retweets. But it doesn't mean anything definitive about grass-roots support. Otherwise, right now we'd be talking about Herman Cain's amazing victory in Iowa. (Need I remind you of when he was getting headlines topping the Facebook "buzz" charts)

These are empty information calories, to borrow a phrase from Clay Johnson's timely new book, The Information Diet. Eat them at your own risk, for they can make you really dumb.

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This isn't to say that campaigns should ignore social media, or that efforts by voters to influence the election by organizing online are pointless. But just because you can count something and chart it doesn't mean you've proven anything.

Take, for example, Newt Gingrich's 1.4 million Twitter followers. On Huffington Post, Alan Rosenblatt demolishes the notion that this means he's popular among Republicans. Half of those accounts aren't in the United States. And half of all Twitter accounts aren't even active.

Newt's numbers are a sign of online longevity and notoriety, not much more.

Rick Santorum's late surge in Iowa should also put the mania for tracking online buzz into perspective. All of last year, he trailed the pack online. Meanwhile, he worked Iowa the old-fashioned way and did his best to tap into a social network that is more locally rooted than anything Facebook or Twitter has to offer.

That is, the evangelical church.

As the other candidates with a claim on that community started to fall away, Santorum's fortunes started to rise. And then in late December he got really lucky, sidestepping the negative attention and negative advertising that battered some of the other top-tier candidates while peaking at just the right time.

Now the issue isn't how many new followers Santorum may get online, but how well he engages them and converts these low-level indications of interest into money, volunteers and votes. So far, the tidings aren't great. As my colleagues Sarah Lai Stirland and Nick Judd pointed out yesterday, Santorum's website wasn't quite up to the task of handling the burst of traffic he earned Tuesday night, potentially costing him millions in overnight donations.

Nor does his site offer supporters a way to self-organize, the way My.BarackObama.com or MyMitt.com invites supporters to start their own profile pages or set up their own house parties and fundraisers. (And I haven't even mentioned the Santorum campaign's failure to successfully address his "Google problem," which Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan dissects at great length today.)

Online politics is complicated and requires a level of technological literacy that most people, reporters included, simply lack. So as you encounter breathless headlines about the role of social media in the 2012 election, or how the race is going to be won or lost on Facebook or Twitter or whatever, just remember this: a link, or a follow, or a retweet, is about as meaningful as a glance or a nod.

It's an indication of fairly low-level interest, nothing more. Organizing all those glances or nods into something powerful -- that's what really matters.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Micah Sifry.