Is Twitter channeling users toward President Barack Obama?
Here's a snapshot from recent visits to the Twitter accounts of Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. The president's page, @BarackObama, had amassed 19.2 million followers versus slightly more than 1 million for @MittRomney. The difference: 18.2 million.
While Obama has been in the Oval Office for almost four years, it wasn’t surprising to see so many followers displayed on his bio.
What was surprising, though, was how few followers Mitt Romney was gaining compared to Obama. For those unfamiliar with Twitter, a social networking site launched in 2006, users have the option to follow the accounts and short messages posted by those they care about. Think of it as the Internet’s text messaging service.
2012Twit.com, which tracks the social presence of those involved in the election, found that in the previous 24 hours, Obama gained more than 41,000 followers or more than four times as many as Romney's 9,000. (Read More: Smartphone Owners Like Obama: Survey)
On average,@BarackObama has been adding about 9,600 Twitter followers per day since its inception in March 2007 and is the sixth most-followed account on Twitter. @MittRomney has been getting an average of 876 every 24 hours since starting in June 2009 and ranks as 1,329th. These numbers would equate to the president gaining more than 10 times as many followers each day.
Why is @MittRomney gaining Twitter followers at a slower pace? According to Twitter, the reason stems from its algorithms.
But three weeks ago, I decided to check. I created a new email account and then signed onto Twitter.com as a new user, an act done by thousands of people around the world each day.
After creating an account, clicking through a tutorial and confirming that I did not want Twitter to view my recent history so it can better recommend suggested follows, I was given a list of accounts to follow. Twitter does this to allow its new users to immediately experience the platforms’ usefulness by filling up their page with tweets. Obama placed eighth. First lady Michelle Obama was fourth. Others in the top 10 included singers Katy Perry and Missy Elliott, comedians Kevin Hart and Louis C.K. and a couple of news-related accounts, but no sign of Romney.
Twitter displayed 73 recommended accounts for my new user profile, including athletes, musicians and comedians. It was clear that Twitter had updated its standard recommended “follow list” because U.S. Olympics gold medal swimmer Ryan Lochte made the new one, at 40th.
I figured that refreshing the list would display a new batch of suggestions. I was wrong. It was the same 73 accounts, albeit in a different order. I logged in and out three more times, only to find similar results. (It’s worth noting that in the months before conducting this experiment, I hadn’t seen @MittRomney in the standard recommended section of a new Twitter user.)
In May, Twitter’s director of growth and international addressed this issue. “When new users come to Twitter, we show them all almost the same suggestions for what or who to follow,” Othman Laraki wrote in a blog post. “That isn’t ideal. Since you have individual interests, you should get individual suggestions. After all, even though millions of people love Justin Bieber, FC Barcelona or Kim Kardashian, not everyone using Twitter may want to follow them.” That’s when Twitter began offering tailored suggestions.
But what about those who opt out of Twitter’s tailored suggestions? It appears Twitter is showing them almost the same 73 suggestions.
When reaching out to the Romney campaign on whether there have been discussions between Twitter and Romney’s camp on better handle placement, a spokeswoman suggested I speak to Twitter and offered no additional comment. (Read More: Sweeney: Are Democrats Losing the Social Media War?)
Elaine Filadelfo, a Twitter spokeswoman,told CNBC.com by email that the “list — for folks who don’t get personalized suggestions — is algorithmically determined. That is, it’s determined by the engagement around the account.” Twitter pointed out that “Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan both appear on our Government Suggested User List.” This list, though, is seen alongside 31 other categories a few pages later in the signup process, where users are less likely to see specific accounts.
In terms of engagement, in the 24 hours ending Wednesday morning, Obama received about 25,000 retweets (when Twitter users broadcast statements they have received) and 36,000 mentions, compared with Romney's 2,000 retweets and 16,000 mentions, according to 2012twit. (Read More:Twitter's Legal Battle: Who Owns Your Tweets?)
I then created a new email address and another Twitter account to opt-in on a tailored Twitter experience (which tracks sites with Twitter-widgets visited within the previous 10 days). The recommended follows were Barack Obama (in the fourth slot), the White House (35th) and Michelle Obama (73rd). Many of the accounts were the same as the ones I found when opting out of the feature, which meant it, too, didn't include Romney's profile.
Less than three weeks after the initial experiment and CNBC.com's email exchanges with Twitter, new users were able to see Romney running mate Paul Ryan's Twitter accounts, as well as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's, in the standard recommended follow section. But there was still no sign of @MittRomney, which sees more engagement than the accounts of his two fellow Republicans.
In a social world where sites charge users to have their accounts prominently displayed alongside streams and where brands pay heavily to feature their advertisements under and atop posts, placement is critical. Those accounts fortunate enough to be featured in a recommended follow section at no cost have hit the jackpot. And in a close presidential election where every set of eyeballs count, having the social edge may mean a difference of 36.4 million eyeballs.
— Written by CNBC's Eli Langer. Follow him on Twitter at @EliLanger.