As we inch closer and closer to 2016, one thing that pundits have emphasized is a candidate’s Twitter success, measured by the number of followers or retweets a candidate accumulates following a debate or event. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina scored 22,000 followers apiece after the first debate, Ted Cruz was mentioned in nearly 5,000 tweets per minute after criticizing debate moderators for media bias and Hillary Clinton has been on the receiving end of countless demeaning hashtag trends.
CNBC’s Nicholas Wells, Eric Chemi and Mark Fahey recently released an analysis of social media success for presidential candidates, highlighting the importance of a follow on social media as it represents an investment of one’s attention in what the candidate says in the future. A follow is perceived as conscious support and retweets are seen as “hell yeah’s” to whatever someone has to say.
However, Twitter success is deceiving. The obsession with Twitter success overlooks the fact that the population of Twitter users does not represent the overall American population or the population of voters. Roughly 52 percent of people who actually use their Twitter accounts are less than 30 years old, while 81 percent of voters in the 2012 presidential election were 30 years old or older. Not only do the demographics between Twitter users and the voting population differ drastically, but there are also far fewer Twitter users in America than voters. The total number of regular American Twitter users is estimated to be 66 million, while the 2012 election turned out 130.3 million voters, which was an unusually low turnout.
What do these statistics mean politically? Even if a candidate gains popularity on social media, it does not equate to success in the polls. Twitter users, more often than not, stop voting altogether. Their trends do not reflect the opinions of the voting population.
As an avid tweeter, I can discredit Wells, Chemi and Fahey’s claim that a follow is comparable to a vote or that it shows support for a candidate. A follow takes the smallest degree of effort and often happens impulsively and without much reason. I followed Donald Trump not because I support him but simply because I am amused by what he says, even if I disagree with pretty much everything he tweets. Similarly, even though I think Roger Goodell is detrimental to the NFL, I follow him as a daily reminder of what not to be. Also, with Twitter’s format, it is easy to accidentally click the follow button while scrolling down your timeline without even realizing you just followed someone you didn’t want to. A follow holds minimal significance and to perceive a follow as a vote is greatly misguided. Follows, retweets and mentions go towards candidates who are temporarily trending, but a candidate’s relevance is much more short-lived than the perceptions of their Twitter success.
The problem with placing importance on Twitter success is that it blurs the line between support from the public and support from followers. A candidate can tweet a punchline quote from a speech or a blurb from a policy proposal, attract hundreds or thousands of retweets and say, “Look how many people support it.” What is overlooked is that followers could have retweeted the candidate without hearing the rest of the speech or analyzing the rest of the policy, thus producing uninformed support. Furthermore, these punchline tweets can act as abbreviated national messages that constituents will use to make their decisions, but national messages cannot be conveyed in 140 characters or less. Politics will focus on producing one-liners that can accrue the most retweets, rather than substantial ideas and debate that can be analyzed.
But though Twitter is becoming increasingly important in connecting voters to candidates, candidates are less connected to voters by being more connected to Twitter. Policies and messages are no longer about what voters truly care for, but what can hit more strings and get more retweets than the next candidate. Seeking Twitter success is seeking ephemeral validation that holds little significance. Soon enough, candidates and analysts will realize that a vote is a much harder win than a follow.
Lam Nguyen is a sophomore in the College. But I Digress appears every other Friday.