After gaining about 3,000 new follows a day to his Twitter account, since yesterday Mitt Romney has inexplicably gained approximately 100,000 new follows. The Romney campaign denies it is doing as Newt Gingrich did before, and buying new follows (which are mostly spambots and empty accounts).
Maybe the Romney campaign is lying; it’s not like their conduct in this campaign has earned them a presumption of honesty. But maybe the Romney campaign isn’t buying their own Twitter follows, but someone else is.
FEC rules prohibit giving a campaign anything of value–including food for a fundraiser, office space, and even mailing lists–unless it meets all the legal and spending limits of cash contributions and is reported as an in-kind contribution. There are a few exceptions, such as supporters providing housing within their homes to campaign workers. But for something like a commercially available mailing list, the campaign has to pay for it or it has to be an in-kind contribution.
But what about Twitter follows? Twitter follows aren’t like an email address; if someone doesn’t want to receive communications from you, they won’t follow you. And if at some point they do follow you, then decide they don’t want to, they can just unfollow. Mitt Romney can’t transfer his follows to another campaign, another person, another account. If they’re accounts used by actual Twitter users, he can communicate with them but only on their terms: they have to open their twitter account and do it around a time when his account has an update. Do Twitter follows have a monetary value? Has the FEC addressed the issue yet? If not, they probably will have to soon.
It is possible the Romney campaign is telling the truth, that they have not purchased new followers. But if Twitter followers are considered to not have value in a way that would require it be considered a campaign contribution, it may be permissible for a third party–such as a SuperPAC–to purchase the followers.
Purchasing Twitter follows is of dubious utility. If you tweet something, it’s like speaking in a park while standing on the top of a box. Actual people who use and read Twitter who follow one’s account are like the people walking through the park who stop and listen to you. But buying follows that are really empty accounts is sort of like buying shabby clothes and laying them in front of you while you stand on the box–there’s really nobody there listening to you, and anyone who looks closely knows you’ve assembled a bunch of empty suits.
Romney’s campaign may not be purchasing follows for his Twitter feed. But someone probably is, and with money that is dark, unreported and unaccountable. At least it’s being wasted on something of little or no value.