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By Eric Stirgus August 9, 2011

Gingrich: Twitter account has 1.3 million followers

The 2012 presidential race has thus far been filled with weighty subjects like unemployment, federal spending and America’s military interests in the Middle East.

But in the Web world, one big presidential issue that surfaced recently was whether Republican candidate and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s seemingly sizable Twitter following is legit.

The Gingrich campaign had to defend its candidate after the website Gawker published an article reporting that most of his 1.3 million Twitter followers are fake.

Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond, in Twitter-like speed, denied the claim.

"Gawker gaffed, hoodwinked their readers and insulted 1.3 million of Newt’s [Twitter followers]," Hammond told the New York Daily News.

We were curious about Gingrich’s claim since he’s talked about his Twitter following to make a case that his campaign has a strong pulse. Politico reported a few weeks ago that Gingrich’s Twitter following far exceeded his Republican rivals, and even Sarah Palin, who frequently uses social media to spread her message. Gingrich, a former Georgia congressman, bragged about the Politico piece in a recent interview with the Marietta Daily Journal.

"It turned out I have six times as many Twitter followers as all the other candidates combined," Gingrich told the Marietta Daily Journal.

Politicians, some better than others, have been capitalizing on the social networking site where messages cannot exceed 140 characters as a faster way to engage supporters and potential voters and to weigh in on various issues. Gingrich embraced Twitter long before most political figures (he’s sent more than 2,700 tweets). Just a handful of American political figures, such as President Barack Obama, former Vice President Al Gore and U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), have more Twitter followers than Gingrich.

But Gawker cited an anonymous former Gingrich staffer who estimated about 80 percent of the followers were created by agencies that are inactive or dummy accounts. But others also have picked apart Gingrich’s Twitter following.

The New York-based Web search index company PeekYou said it had done its own analysis of Gingrich’s Twitter account before the Gawker article surfaced. PeekYou CEO Michael Hussey said the company concluded only 8 percent of his Twitter followers were confirmed as "real human beings." The rest, he said, didn’t have real locations, used questionable names to register their Twitter accounts and/or didn’t have any other presence online.

"We noticed a lot of the stuff out there are not actual people," said Hussey, a self-proclaimed Libertarian.

Hussey said the other Republican presidential candidates all had a higher percentage of Twitter followers who could be confirmed. The range was from 27 to 32 percent.

Some companies will offer coupons to people to follow various social media accounts, said Amy Bruckman, an associate professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing.

Hussey pointed us to eBay, where people can pay companies to help them gather more Twitter followers (about $12.99 per 1,000). He’s dubious about many of these companies. He said their Twitter followers are often fake -- they use an illegitimate e-mail account.

Hammond, the Gingrich spokesman, has strongly denied the campaign has used such tactics.

With the ability of some companies to create fake accounts, does this mean that Lady Gaga, the queen of Twitter, doesn’t truly have 12.2 million followers?

"She might have [some phony followers]," Hussey said.

The Gingrich camp has noted that the candidate is on Twitter’s list of suggested users. Some estimates say being on that list can result in an additional 500 Twitter followers a day.

Another group of researchers conducted a sample study of the Twitter followings of some of the GOP presidential candidates; Palin and Obama. The Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research looked at five categories, such as the percentage of users who never tweeted and didn’t have a profile biography.

In each category, Gingrich had the highest percentage of Twitter followers who didn’t have such information in each field. They found 33 percent of Gingrich followers never tweeted. Palin was second with 17 percent of followers who never tweeted. Obama was third at 10 percent.

About three-quarters of Gingrich followers didn’t have a profile biography. Palin and Obama were second and third, respectively, with 54 percent and 48 percent of their followers who didn’t have a profile biography. In their defense, Obama, Gingrich and Palin have the highest supposed number of Twitter followers, so it’s logical that they have a larger percentage of suspect Twitter accounts.

The Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research, which is part of Indiana University, said it randomly sampled 5,000 Twitter followers of each candidate.

PolitiFact Georgia looked at 1,000 Gingrich Twitter followers and found 27 percent of them had no picture, had never tweeted and little to no profile information. Many others with pictures had no profile information.

Some social media experts note that there are well-intentioned people who join Twitter but wind up sending few or no tweets and don’t set up a profile picture. Still, Bruckman, the Georgia Tech professor, is dubious that all of Gingrich’s Twitter followers are real.

"His sheer number of followers seems out of proportion to his standing in the polls,"  said Bruckman, who’s been at school since 1997 and once talked with Gingrich about social networking. "Those numbers should be correlated."

In response to our questions, Hammond sent us a press release that says Twitter is solely responsible for each Twitter user’s legitimacy.

"We will now return to our efforts to confront the president about his inability to create jobs for the American economy. Thank you," it ended.

So, does Newt Gingrich have about 1.3 million Twitter followers? Twitter still lists the candidate as having 1.3 million followers. The Gingrich camp said the Gawker article was an insult to those followers.

But as we and others found, there is strong evidence that not all of these followers are real. There are Twitter followers and there are bona fide Twitter followers. Gingrich has 1.3 million of the former, not so many of the latter.

We rate the campaign’s claim as Mostly False.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Marietta Daily Journal, "Gingrich: I’m not giving up," July 31, 2011

Gawker, "Most of Newt Gingrich’s Twitter followers are fake," Aug. 1, 2011, "Gingrich: Twitter followers aren’t fake," Aug. 3, 2011

Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research, "Profile of the 2012 Presidential Candidates’ Twitter Followers," accessed Aug. 5, 2011

E-mail from Newt Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond, Aug. 3, 2011

New York Daily News, "Newt Gingrich accused of paying for Twitter followers, boosting profile with fake accounts," Aug. 2, 2011

Telephone interview with PeekYou CEO Michael Hussey, Aug. 2, 2011

Telephone interview with Georgia Tech associate professor Amy Bruckman, Aug. 5, 2011

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Gingrich: Twitter account has 1.3 million followers

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