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Hashtags are the new lawn signs: Why Twitter won’t predict political success in the 2012 cycle

Political journalists need to remember that prominence on Twitter doesn’t necessarily turn into prominence at the ballot box.

Editor’s note: We thought this piece from Talking Points Memo’s Kyle Leighton and David Taintor was interesting. It looks at how political journalists, searching for external indicators of a candidate’s momentum, seem to have moved from counting lawn signs to counting tweets.

It’s worth a pre-weekend read. Thanks to TPM for letting us republish this piece; the original’s over here.

Ask any political operative tasked with managing “presence” and volunteers in past campaigns what their biggest frustration is, and it’s usually not a contest. Lawn signs.

Lawn signs, meet your digital replacement: Twitter.

“The old mantra is that lawn signs can’t vote,” Matt Canter, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told TPM. “The same applies to hashtags.”

Lawn signs are a metaphor for campaign frustration, whether it’s a race for city council or the presidency. They’re an easy tool that make people feel good about their candidate in a public display of affection, but many a staffer has been frustrated by supporters who think they are doing their part by putting one up — when they could be making phone calls and knocking on doors. Twitter, as a campaign tool, is much more valuable — Canter and other operatives point to its success as way to recruit volunteers and get supporters excited about the campaign.

Rating the intensity of one candidate’s supporters means nothing if a rival’s supporters cast more votes.

What’s probably less valuable is where the social networking tool overlaps with the news media. Journalists sometimes use Twitter to help make sense of where voters stand and why — the ultimate goal of political coverage. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.

Widgets like The Washington Post’s Mention Machine and Time magazine’s Campaign Buzz Meter track mentions on Twitter and other social media to determine who’s up and who’s down on any given day of the campaign. As of Thursday afternoon, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney were jockeying for the top spot on Time’s Campaign Buzz Meter. But Paul has yet to win a GOP primary contest, and Romney has far and away secured the most delegates.

When the Post’s “Mention Machine” appeared ahead of the Iowa caucuses, Cory Haik, Amanda Zamora, and Natalie Jennings, three members of the paper’s social media team, wrote about its inception:

@MentionMachine is a new Washington Post news app 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 launched Jan. 3, the day of the Iowa caucuses, and will run through the presidential election in November.

There are a few ways Twitter variables, or mentions, can be measured or extrapolated to examine trends in campaigns. Growth in number of legitimate followers or a high recurrence of retweets are both indicative of growing grass-roots support. A spike in the number of times a candidate is mentioned on Twitter might signal an event that could alter a campaign. There are many engagement presentations across The Washington Post site that will display @MentionMachine counts to show these variables.

Michael Dimock, an associate director at the Pew Research Center, told TPM that it may be too soon to tell whether social media tracking tools are a useful way of reporting on political campaigns.

The data don’t show what voters are “feeling,” Dimock said, also saying that it doesn’t make the display uninteresting. “It gives me some information about how engaging [a particular] storyline is,” he added, “whether that story is resonating with people.”

But “to think of this as an indicator of that broader public is not a safe connection to draw yet,” Dimock said. A recent Pew study on primary news consumption illustrates Dimock’s point. Only 2 percent of the study’s respondents learn about the presidential race from Twitter. Dimock said Twitter ranks low because it was built for personal and social interaction, not necessarily a channel through which to deliver news. “We’re still in the very early stage of seeing how much will these be news sources for people,” he said.

Social media are more effective at gauging the intensity of an electoral base than measuring political preference, Dimock added. Which is exactly what political professionals use it for — to rally their supporters and disseminate information to reporters.

Cory Haik, The Washington Post’s executive producer of news innovations, said the Mention Machine is just one way of monitoring the political conversation. But to be most effective, she said, it needs context. “Twitter is not necessarily going to tell you who’s going to win the election,” Haik told TPM.

But when the Post’s Mention Machine declares who’s up and who’s down, the paper is suggesting that when a candidate surges on Twitter, he or she could be surging at the polls. Claims that legitimate followers and retweets are “indicative of growing grass-roots support,” are likely too close for comfort, in the same way that lawn signs are no indicator of a winner. After all, rating the intensity of one candidate’s supporters means nothing if a rival’s supporters cast more votes. It should be mentioned that the Post’s Mention Machine also uses traditional media mentions — not just Twitter and social media — when ranking candidates.

The Post cited a chart in an article last month that graphed the results of their Twitter tracking and the results of different states along the GOP presidential primary process. It turns out, when a candidate wins a state, people tweet about them. If another candidate wins a state, people tweet about them. So the whole idea of Twitter’s possible predictive value of the state of the race was essentially done in by their own data — the information gleaned from the chart shows users reacting to events, not helping to shape them.

Santorum campaign manager Mike Biundo agreed that using social media is a piece of a larger campaign strategy. Tweeting and posting on Facebook is a great way to quickly get a message out, but you “can’t rely on social media as the only way you’re communicating with voters,” he told TPM. “It’s a part of your holistic approach,” including traditional campaigning, direct mail, get-out-the-vote efforts, and so on.

That’s where all sides seem to intersect. Twitter is a great organizing tool. But its function is better served rallying actual people to speak directly with other people, rather than persuading across media platforms. And attempts to make sense of the crosstalk between camps is no different than saying reporting on the number of lawn signs Candidate X has up, and how that will ensure Candidate Y’s defeat on election day.

Photo by Scorpions and Centaurs used under a Creative Commons license.

What to read next
Ken Doctor    Aug. 25, 2014
“Things” editor, distribution editor, correspondent for progress — as newsrooms change, so do the ways they organize their human resources.
  • Barry Hollander

    It’s a lot more complicated than this.  Some studies have examined Twitter to see if “feelings” expressed in tweets match traditional polls in how well they predict election outcomes.  They do, but not well.  Evaluating positive or negative tweets on a massive scale is difficult and full of error, and mere mentions is not sensitive enough to tell us much of anything at all.   How you code tweets as positive and negative, that’s partly art, partly science, and partly voodoo.  As we know from surveys, the size of the sample is not as important as how well the sample is drawn.

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