In the age of 'viral' political ads, who can trust politicians' numbers?

04/30/2013 04:26 PM

Within 24 hours of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s campaign launching a new online video last week, the YouTube stats showed the 2-minute Internet ad had garnered a whopping 651,021 views.

That was already way more views than any other McConnell campaign-related video had ever gotten. (The campaign’s second highest viewed video has 57,000 views). But in a 16-minute span late Friday afternoon, the new video — called “The American Ideal” — jumped to more than 1 million views, as The Washington Post first reported . And the Post found those numbers hard to believe.

Still, by Monday, Republican Party Chairman Steve Robertson described the success of “The American Ideal” as being a “viral” video that was reaching more than a million viewers.

But in the modern game of online number fudging, it’s increasingly easy to get eye-popping statistics without getting actual eyeballs to watch the video.

McConnell’s campaign, in its quest to be at the cutting edge of social media outreach, brought in a Millennial generation political filmmaker wunderkind, Lucas Baiano, who has a remarkable track record of his political videos cracking that magic 1 million-view mark.

McConnell’s campaign manager Jesse Benton denied that he or the campaign paid for any online services to artificially inflate the statistics.

Benton told Pure Politics that the reason for the high number of views was the campaign’s effort to advertise the video online as well as the compelling content. The campaign spent more than $6,000 dollars on Web ads to promote the video.

“We are committed to leveraging technology to drive a positive that will make Kentucky proud,” Benton said to Pure Politics. “It has been simply amazing to watch this great video take off, and we plan to do more like is very soon.”

However, as the Post article said, the trends in the video’s YouTube views that the public can see shows spikes when the video was shared or viewed, pointing toward manufactured success rather than organically-shared viral video.

In the image below, you can see the statistics that YouTube provides for the McConnell video.

The concept of artificially generating a larger-than-life presence online while bringing social media into political campaigns has been going on for years, said Paul Levinson, professor of politics and new media at Fordham University who wrote about the effects of social media in politics in his book “New New Media”.

“Unfortunately while it is extremely unethical, it is not illegal. People must take everything they see online with a grain of salt,” Levinson told Pure Politics in a phone interview.

The new age of social media in campaigning

The new campaign video was produced by the 24-year-old Baiano, a Canadian-American with an already long resume of working with big-name political figures. Baiano previously worked for the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Rick Perry, as well as others such as former Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts.

Baiano has produced campaign videos in the same theatrical style for a few of those campaigns which have received a massive amount of views in a similar time line as the new McConnell video.

For example, Baiano produced a campaign video called “Proven Leadership” for Perry’s 2012 GOP presidential campaign. That video now has more than 2 million views. That’s the second highest amount of views for any of Perry’s 60 YouTube videos. Only his ad called “Strong” has more, but that one went viral because of controversial comments he made in that ad.

Another Baiano-produced video with more than a million hits was a video for Scott Brown posted to YouTube on July 23, 2012. On July 31, Baiano tweeted the video had cracked the million mark. A video titled “Hey, Dad” on Brown’s YouTube page has the next highest amount of views with 189,325 views.

Most recently, Baiano produced a video for the Minnesota Prayer Breakfast (seen below) that received more than a million views in a just over three days, according to a tweet by Baiano.

The statistics, like the ones shown for the McConnell video, have been disabled for the other videos above.

Levinson said in a political campaign, the boosted numbers might give a campaign some momentum but the only reality test for a candidate’s popularity is on Election Day.

Fan following or buying bots?

Baiano tweeted about the Minnesota Prayer video three times, so some of the views could be explained by that exposure considering he has more than 1 million followers on Twitter.

Baiano couldn’t be reached for comment. The McConnell campaign denied a request to speak to Baiano, saying he doesn’t “do press.”

But a check of Baiano’s followers shows that many of the usernames do not resemble real accounts. For example, the last username in the screenshot below shows a picture of a man with the profile information of “mega-mom.”

A “Fake Follower Check” through StatusPeople showed that only 9 percent of Baiano’s followers are “good” while 80 percent are inactive and 11 percent are fake.

Mary C. Long, co-editor of AllTwitter , said the statistics of a fake follower check can be skewed because of the definition of an “inactive user,” which could be a person who has an account but is not frequently tweeting from the account.

However, Long said it is unusual for a political figure to have that many inactive users because people who are interested in politics often tend to be more vocal on sites like Twitter.

In comparison, a check of the Pure Politics Twitter account showed 72 percent as “good” followers with 21 percent inactive and 7 percent fake.

Inactive and fake followers are seen often in politics, as CNN showed the amount of these types of followers that plague the accounts of President Barack Obama and former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

And a look at follower statistics provided to Pure Politics from Kred by PeopleBrowsr shows that the trends of Baiano’s followers suggest a non-organic approach to gaining followers.

Shown below is a graph of following trends for the Twitter account of President Barack Obama provided by Kred for comparison. The graph shows a gradual rise in followers over years.

(Red line indicates number of followers)

By comparison, below is a graph showing the rise in Twitter followers from Baiano’s account. The sharp increase in followers suggests an artificial following according to experts at Kred.

Levinson said social media is truly the new frontier in politics, where the science of television advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts have been exhaustively analyzed. But when it comes to effectively reaching voters and potential supporters online, the foundation of future research is going on now.

“What’s happening in social media,” he said, “is far outside of our understanding.”


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