The controversey surrounding Mitt Romney’s twitter account continues. According to The Guardian, in July of this year, Mitt commanded around half a million followers compared to Barack’s 18 million. Then suddenly all that changed and thousands of adoring fans emerged, as if by magick, from the digital wilderness:
a couple of students at the Oxford Internet Institute asked themselves a question: what’s the probability that Romney’s new followers are genuine? Their account of the researchmakes fascinating reading. They started from the empirical observation that fake accounts created by Twitterbots tend to have few or no followers. Then they picked 20 Twitter accounts comparable in size to Obama’s and Romney’s and examined the statistical properties of the 150,000 newest followers in each. What they were looking for, of course, was the proportion of new followers who had few or zero followers and were therefore likely to be the product of bots. Here’s what they found:
“26.9% of Romney’s 150,000 newest followers had fewer than two followers. For other accounts of similar size, only 9.6% of new followers had fewer than two followers themselves. The median number of followers for Romney’s new followers was five, whereas the median for the comparison group was 27. This represents a stark and statistically significant difference. If you are a statistics nerd, like us, you might want to know that the p-value on this was 0.0000. For the rest of the world, this means that there is, essentially, a 0% chance that the underlying characteristics of Romney’s followers are actually the same as the comparison users.”
Of course, the Oxford research doesn’t answer the really interesting question: who set up the Twitterbot operation? Was it an inept wheeze dreamed up by Romney’s people? Or a malicious prank orchestrated by his opponents to discredit him? It just tells us that it was a robotic operation. But it does usefully highlight the kind of analysis that journalists need to be able to do in a networked media environment. Determining what is real and what is fake is harder in a digital world than it is in meatspace. And it requires mastery of analytical tools as well as possession of the crap-detector that is the time-honoured prerequisite of investigative journalism.
A short side note here. I’ve recently been wondering about a point which this Guardian journalist casually drops into the above article. The idea that distinguishing between fantasy and reality is in fact made harder by the internet is something I believe requires serious consideration and debate.