Newt Gingrich, Twitter and FollowerGate – Really?

Ian Lurie

Lord knows I’m no fan of Newt Gingrich. His politics are so far to the right of mine he disappears over the horizon.

However, he’s not the kind of guy to go hunting for fake self-esteem boosters. So when the nerdoverse exploded over ‘Followergate’ (term coined by PeekYou) and sprayed it’s way to CNN and Time, I had to take a look.

And I think everyone should think before they pillory a Presidential candidate. Even if I’d have to move to a deserted island and build a concrete bunker if he were elected.

At first, just pathetic

I started by looking at 42,000 Twitter users who follow Newt Gingrich, randomly selected from a larger 750,000 list of his followers. I looked at the number of times they’ve tweeted, and how many followers they had. The upshot? Newt ain’t gonna be President, that’s for sure:

13 percent of Newt Gingrich Followers Have Zero Followers of their own
41 percent of Newt Gingrich followers have fewer than 10 friends
10 percent of Newt Gingrich followers have never tweeted
25 percent of Newt Gingrich followers have tweeted fewer than 10 times

These are all pretty pathetic numbers. But (admittedly old) data shows that over 50% of Twitter users Tweet. So none of this suggests he’s was padding his Twitter profile, either.

Something stinks

Then I looked at the number of ‘friends’ for each follower. Twitter defines a ‘friend’ as someone you follow, but may or may not follow you back.

In my sampling, I found 27,788 people who followed Newt Gingrich but didn’t follow anyone else. That’s 66%.

66 percent of Newt Gingrich's Twitter followers never followed anyone else.


Either 27 thousand people signed up for Twitter because they were inspired by Newt Gingrich, or something’s way off here.

And, in truth, it’s totally possible that 27,788 people did go from his web site to Twitter and sign up. I’m not casting aspersions when I say the typical Newt Gingrich fan from the 1990’s probably isn’t a Twitterholic. So he may have introduced them to social media.

So yes, something stinks. But it’s not conclusive. I still have to give the Gingrich campaign benefit of the doubt.

Explanation 1: He’s innocent

The suspicious numbers may be a product of Gingrich’s demographic appeal, and his campaign’s total internet marketing failure. Newt Gingrich’s core audience is a demographic that last voted for him in the 1990s. Those are folks far less likely to use Twitter than the younger voters following, say, Barack Obama. I’m not being age-ist – just look at the data. Younger people use Twitter. Older people don’t.

They’re not fake, as PeekYou suggests. They’re just not big Twitter users. They signed up after visiting the Gingrich campaign site, or hearing about the campaign. Or they dusted off an old account to follow Gingrich when they heard he was running for President. Other metrics, like Klout, seem to back this up.

Newt Gingrich’s Klout scores are within norms. He has 1.3 million followers, a TrueReach of 505,000, and a Klout of 71.8. That’s proportionally close to Barack Obama, who has 9.4 million followers, a TrueReach of 4 million, and a Klout of 88.9. And it seems on par with Michele Bachmann, who has 67,000 followers and a TrueReach of 25,000.

At 72.6, I have more Klout than Newt Gingrich! Woo hoo! Barack, I’m gonna catch you too! (shakes fist)

I’d expect the average Barack Obama or Michele Bachmann follower spends a lot more time on Twitter than the average Newt Gingrich follower. That would explain why he has so many more users that seem ‘real’.

Explanation 2: He’s guilty

The other possibility? Someone on the Gingrich campaign bought an auto-follower and went hog-wild on Twitter.

Auto-followers are programs marketed with headlines like “Get thousands of followers overnight!!!!”

When you run an auto-follower, it goes out and literally follows thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of Twitter users. Some of those users will have automatic ‘follow back’ scripts on their Twitter accounts. So you start to collect followers. That makes you look important. Then you delete most of the folks who are following you, and voila! You look special!

Understand: Using an auto-follower in 2011 requires a really, really amateur marketer. A campaign staffer or PR ‘professional’ dumb enough to use an auto-follower might also pay $800,000 for a web site. Which, of course, they did. So yes, it’s entirely possible.

Don’t jump to conclusions

While using automated analysis like PeekYou is great, don’t forget that your audience all unique human beings.

That uniqueness could totally explain FollowerGate.

Just like Barack Obama losing 40,000 followers was a non-event (it was about .4% of his following), Newt Gingrich’s totally polluted Twitter profile is more sad than evil. Don’t jump to conclusions.

Maybe this really is as important as a double-dip recession, Libya, Syria and a global heat wave. If that’s true, though, I think we should get conclusive data before we filet any presidential candidate. And the black-box analysis of a single startup company (I love PeekYou, but it’s still a black box) doesn’t count.

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Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. By this evaluation I am a fake twitter user (and no I don’t follow Newt.) I never post, don’t have a photo, and follow fewer than 7 names.

  2. Not to defend Newt, but I think you’ll find similar numbers for anyone who was put on the suggested user list.
    This also exposes the dirty secret of Twitter: the VAST majority of Twitter accounts are inactive, bots or spammers. Active Twitter users are probably only 10-15% of the numbers they give of total accounts.

  3. @Gary That’s exactly my point, yes. And trust me, when I started I really wanted to find a huge, smoking gun. I would’ve cackled with glee.

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