Like it or not, Twitter continues to be at the forefront of social networking and sharing. We now live in an age when Twitter support is everywhere, and a few hours’ downtime at the service is worthy of international headlines. Although Twitter isn’t as simple as it used to be, the service continues to grow because it’s simple to use, doesn’t require a ton of attention, scales well across devices, and allows rapid-fire interaction with users around the world. Although plenty of people still tweet about what they had for breakfast, Twitter is often serving as a source for local and international news. The Summer Olympics getting underway in London should only serve to underscore that point.
So it’s natural that governments and politicians would embrace Twitter as a way to communicate quickly with the public and even bypass traditional gatekeepers like mainstream media, bureaucracy, and lobbyists. Heck, via Twitter they could even engage directly with citizens and constituents!
To look at how world leaders used Twitter, public relations firm Burson-Marsteller sought out and identified 264 Twitter accounts associated with government leaders, heads of state, and government institutions in 125 countries around the world. Some of these accounts are actually personal accounts of world leaders, others are accounts set up by their campaigns or other organization to represent them. Some accounts also represent an office rather than an individual, and others represent various institutions rather than individuals.
Burson-Marsteller then did what so many other Twitter-watchers love to do: It pulled in heaps of metadata about the accounts (using Twitonomy) and applied various metrics to the data in an effort to ferret out trends. How many followers do they have? Who do they follow? How often do they retweet? What hashtags do they use? Burson-Marsteller considered a few dozen variables in analyzing the accounts, but also looked at factors that aren’t visible from mere account statistics. Is the account actually run by the world leader, or by staffers? And, perhaps most importantly, do politicans actually engage with each other — or with ordinary people — via Twitter? Or do they treat the service as just another channel for broadcasting announcements?
Winners and losers
The most visible world leader on Twitter is Barack Obama. Not coincidently, he also has the oldest account of any of the leaders examined, set up back when he was just an aspiring Senator from Illinois rather than President of the United States. President Obama is one of the most widely-followed accounts on all of Twitter with nearly 18 million followers, eclipsed only the likes of Britney Spears. Obama’s account is actually a campaign account, rather than official account representing the United States government. The @WhiteHouse handle represents the office — and it’s not doing too shabbily itself, with nearly three million followers. Presumably, that account will transition to subsequent office-holders, assuming Twitter is still around.
Of all the world leaders, Obama also follows the most people: More than 675,000. However, that’s mostly a holdover from the 2008 campaign, when the account would automatically follow anyone who followed it on Twitter. The account hasn’t been adding followers for quite some time, and there’s little to no evidence that the account actually pays attention to anyone it follows.
Obama’s account is also unusual by disclosing up front that it’s managed by campaign staffers and any personally-composed tweets from the President will be signed “-bo.” That policy only came into effect in 2011. Before that, Barack Obama had never sent a tweet — not even his oft-quoted “humbled” tweet in response to being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. That said, Obama has been much with the personal tweets, but (as with the automatic following in the 2008 campaign) it’s widely expected Obama’s 2012 campaign will see increased personal tweets from the President as a way to get voters’s attention. Even still, fewer than one percent of tweets from the Obama accounts are replies to followers.
As President, Obama has been a bit more active on the White House Twitter account, taking a handful of questions submitted by Twitter users last year and even answering questions via Twitter. That said, the White House account is managed by staffers, not the President, but those staffers seem to have a reasonable grasp of how to use the service: they make frequent use of hashtags, and once even rickrolled a follower.
However, while the White House and the Obama campaign accounts are followed by more than 60 other world leaders, they follow only three: the official UK Prime Minister’s account (there’s that “special relationship”, Norway’s Jens Stoltenberg, and Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev. The White House would probably follow a fourth, but it can’t follow the Barack Obama account due to campaign finance rules.
Who is the second most-popular world leader on Twitter? Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who actually has more followers than the White House. And there’s something else different about Chavez’ use of Twitter: he actively engages his followers. Fully 38 percent of Chavez’s tweets are replies, and Chavez even gave an apartment to his three millionth follower. Some of Chavez’s tweets include public conversations with Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and enthusiastic messages during Venezuelan football (soccer) matches. However, Chavez’s tweeting has declined a bit since starting chemotherapy treatment in Cuba a year ago.
Overall, the Twiplomacy study found about thirty world leaders seem to do their own tweeting, with Ugandan Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi and Rwandan President Paul Kagame often sometimes engaging personally with followers. The rest of the accounts are explicitly or apparently managed by staff. And the outright chattiest “world leader” account is actually operated by the British Monarchy: It averages about 14 tweets a day.
Nonetheless, most world leaders do not engage with each other. The “most connected” world leader on Twitter is Herman Van Rompuy – the President of the European Council. With about 70,000 followers, he’d barely rate Twitter-celebrity status these days. However, Van Rompuy boasts a whopping 11 mutual connections with other world leaders or governments, meaning he follows them and they’ve followed him back. But Van Rompuy isn’t much of a tweeter himself: Almost everything on the account is written by his media team. And while more than a quarter of all world leader account follow Barack Obama or the White House, 120 of the 264 accounts studied don’t follow any of their peers.
A society of followers
It doesn’t take a very deep look at efforts like the Twiplomacy study to see where Twitter succeeds — and fails — in regard to government, politics, and public discourse.
Although a handful of leaders (like Obama, Canada’s Stephen Harper, and Mexico’s president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto) have had accounts since early 2007, most world leaders are relative newcomers to the service, largely getting on board in the last year or two. And a handful, like Chavez and Obama, have made significant direct and indirect efforts to use the service to engage with everyday people as peers.
However, for the most part, governments and world leaders are treating Twitter just like another wire service to which they can publish news, information, slogans, and even propaganda. Most have no interest in interacting with other Twitter users or even engaging with their own constituents. They don’t pay attention to followers, care what people say about them, reply, or even make an effort to learn to use Twitter effectively. (For instance, almost no world leader or government accounts make effective use of lists.)
The analysis offered by the Twiplomacy study highlights how most folks keep score on Twitter: by the number of followers. More followers means you’re more important! The idea is that choosing to follow an account on Twitter is an indication of direct interest in what that it might say or what it represents. Brands strive to accumulate followers on Twitter. They believe their image and visibility improves the higher their number gets. The Twiplomacy study largely applies the same ideas to world leaders and official government accounts, and, not surprisingly, mostly finds them lacking.
That’s one way to look at it. Here’s another:
For more than six years, Twitter has offered a free, easy-to-use, globally accessible, opt-in, interactive, real-time messaging service that operates on everything from traditional desktops to even some of the most-underpowered feature phones. It is not controlled by governments or media conglomerates, and has more than 500 million active users worldwide.
Most governments and world leaders simply aren’t interested.