Too good to check: Former staffer claims 80% of Gingrich's Twitter followers are fakes; Update: Or are they?

Not only is it too good to check, it’s impossible to check. He has 1.3 million followers, more than twice the number Palin has and many, many, many times more than other Republican candidates. Unless there’s some Twitter algorithm I’m unaware of that can quickly check how many followers are actively tweeting, you’d have to hand-count ’em to be sure and no one’s going to bother doing that. In fact, a quick scroll through his follower list shows that many of the last few hundred, at least, appear to be genuine.

So why has this story captured the blogosphere’s imagination today? Simple: It sounds like the sort of thing he might do, which really does make it too good to check. Although, in fairness, if we were building this narrative from scratch and looking for someone in the GOP field who seems most likely to pay people to follow him, we all know who it would be. And it ain’t Newt.

A former staffer tells us that his campaign hired a firm to boost his follower count, in part by creating fake accounts en masse:

“Newt employs a variety of agencies whose sole purpose is to procure Twitter followers for people who are shallow/insecure/unpopular enough to pay for them. As you might guess, Newt is most decidedly one of the people to which these agencies cater.

“About 80 percent of those accounts are inactive or are dummy accounts created by various ‘follow agencies,’ another 10 percent are real people who are part of a network of folks who follow others back and are paying for followers themselves (Newt’s profile just happens to be a part of these networks because he uses them, although he doesn’t follow back), and the remaining 10 percent may, in fact, be real, sentient people who happen to like Newt Gingrich. If you simply scroll through his list of followers you’ll see that most of them have odd usernames and no profile photos, which has to do with the fact that they were mass generated. Pathetic, isn’t it?”

Gingrich’s spokesman denies it, of course. Politico wrote a piece on Newt’s massive Twitter following a few weeks ago and chalked the size of it up to his “personal touch,” i.e. the fact that he writes his own tweets instead of outsourcing them to a staffer. Er, okay, but I’m pretty sure Palin writes her own too and her political following is a lot deeper and broader than his, and somehow he’s still light years ahead of her. He’s not an especially prolific tweeter either: At the time of Politico’s story, he had tweeted 2,611 times in the course of 29 months for an average of roughly three a day. Prolific tweeters, who are more likely to attract followers because they’re churning out more material to catch the eye, will tweet many, many times that amount in the same span. I myself have tweeted more than 33,000 times in roughly the same period, but that’s what happens when you’re a beta male chained to a computer 16 hours a day. Newt’s numbers are more in line with a busy candidate/pundit/author/jack of all trades, but even so — 1.3 million followers from 2,600 tweets is remarkably efficient tweeting.

Which is not to say that his numbers are necessarily fake. There are quirky cases in which people you wouldn’t expect to amass huge numbers of followers do end up that way. E.g., John Dickerson of Slate has even more followers than Gingrich does, and may well be the most-followed journalist in America. I’m not sure why: He’s a respected political writer but not the sort of household name you’d expect would draw a huge audience. By comparison, Jake Tapper is on TV every night, tweets frequently (much more so than Dickerson), often engages with his followers, and yet he has less than a tenth of Dickerson’s audience. I think Dickerson might have been an early adopter of Twitter and picked up lots of followers as the site’s popularity exploded, but I’m not sure. Maybe the same is true of Gingrich? But if he and Palin have been tweeting for roughly the same period, why would he hold such a big lead? Odd.

Update: A friend e-mails with a likelier explanation for Newt’s following:

Hey, the Newt Gingrich story is unbelievable BS. Leave aside the utter impracticality of creating new accounts just to boost your follower numbers – you’d have to create new email accounts AND new Twitter accounts for each follower, which would be prohibitively time-consuming for a ridiculously small return – Gawker just completely ignores the most obvious fact: Gingrich was one of the very first Republicans added to Twitter’s Suggested User list.

Back in 2009, it was estimated that being on the Suggested User list could quickly get you about 500,000 followers. It has to have increased since then. Newt Gingrich was on that list for a long time.

By way of comparison, Al Gore (!/algore) has 2.2 million followers and he has only tweeted 368 times. Why does he have so many followers? Because he was on the Suggested User list.