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Brian Bergstein

A View from Brian Bergstein

Disregard Social-Media Stats about the Election

Counting Facebook likes and Twitter followers makes Obama look great, but the close race shows how meaningless those numbers are.

  • November 6, 2012

President Obama is just destroying Mitt Romney. It’s not even close. Look, even in Republican strongholds like Nebraska, South Carolina, and the Dakotas, the president is cruising to reëlection.

Impossible, you say? Well, it is possible if you don’t count votes but, instead, the mentions that the candidates are getting on Facebook. Promise me, dear reader, that you will not look upon such data as anything more than trivia.

That should be apparent from the fact that Obama has been demolishing Romney for months in Twitter followers, with 22 million to Romney’s 1.7 million. On Facebook, the Democrat has been “liked” 32 million times; Romney only 12 million. Set aside the fact that likes and followers can be gamed or even purchased; the enormous leftward skew tells you instantly that Facebook and Twitter can’t be representative of the voting population at large.  

Just how unrepresentative are they? Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, which studies Web behavior in fascinating detail, told me today that only 59 percent of adults use social-networking sites. Just 14 percent use Twitter. Those that do use it tend to be younger and more passionate about politics.

To be sure, even though it might not map perfectly onto the nation at large, Facebook is clearly mainstream, and its enormous user base makes all kinds of interesting things possible. It’s a powerful media channel and social-science laboratory (see “What Facebook Knows”). But that doesn’t mean that all the activity on it can be aggregated into meaningful numbers. For example, Facebook is encouraging people to vote today, as it has in past elections, and showing in real time where in the country people are clicking that they voted. The participation is great—millions of people are telling their Facebook friends they voted! But the large number is basically just an advertisement for Facebook’s big audience. After all, by this unrepresentative count, the electorate has twice as many women as men.

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