Monday, November 26, 2012

Migration Patterns - Why Are @ProLifeCampaign's Followers Mainly American?

Cora Sherlock, deputy chair of the Pro Life Campaign, was kind enough to comment on a recent post where I discussed the organisation's Twitter stats. I encourage you to read both, but for those who can't resist skimming I'll summarise by saying that only ten per cent of this Irish organisation's followers are Irish, and 70% are based in the United States. I'll quote sections of Cora's response for context below.

Cora didn't specify if she was commenting in an official capacity or not. To my mind it is most charitable to assume her words were in a personal capacity and that is the interpretation I will take unless corrected. I should also add that at present I have no reason to believe that Cora runs the @ProLifeCampaign Twitter account - as such any criticism of the account should not be read as directed at Cora. Indeed I'm grateful to her for interacting; it is not a step taken by any other anti-abortion group I've covered.

I've taken the liberty of assigning headers to what I feel are Cora's main points.

Are Twitter stats representative of interests?

Cora writes:
"If I think about my own use of Twitter, I know that I follow a lot of people who I don't agree with - for many reasons...Similarly, I don't follow a lot of people that I do agree with on this issue. Again, the reasons vary. It could be because I don't know they exist; or because I don't agree with some comments that appear negative to post-abortive women; or maybe I just don't have the time to follow every pro-life group or person anyplace, anytime."
If I may extrapolate, it seems Cora is asking if those who follow @ProLifeCampaign are actually supporters of the organisation. A fair question, though if not, we would naturally have to reduce their estimated 543 Irish followers even further. Naturally we can apply this logic to other accounts and ask if followers of @ProudProChoice and @ChoiceIreland support the aims and views of these pro choice organisations.

When I set out to write this post I would also have described the accounts I choose to follow as an eclectic bunch and while it's true that they include many who view the world differently to me, examination of my own Twitter stats reveal that they are in a minority. (Quite often I find that the mental image we hold of ourselves can be too easily disturbed by a little investigation. But I digress.) How can we check if those followed on Twitter are representative of our interests? I've done some projects that may help elucidate. Take followers of the controversial Discovery Institute, an Intelligent Design Creationist organisation. I analysed all their followers and found out which accounts other than @DiscoveryCSC were held in common - the top 25 were all related to Christian apologetics; very few had any interest in science. I've also checked which accounts are popular for followers of Stephen Law and William Lane Craig. The former scored highly for atheism and philosophy, the latter for Christian apologetics. Analysis of Youth Defence showed a primary interest in Republican politics and American anti abortion groups. The trend of majority homogeneity has not been bucked in any account yet analysed.

A full scan of @ProLifeCampaign would require over a week to run. It's no problem to do - I have a dedicated machine for such tasks - and if there's sufficient interest I'm happy to do so. But I think if we look at a word cloud made up of the terms used by their followers in their descriptions we can see that they are overwhelmingly Catholic / Christian, pro-life, and have more self-described fathers and husbands than mothers and wives. Pro choicers do not abound. @ProLifeCampaign are welcome to the image by the way, no need for public acknowledgement. If you want to see @ProudProChoice and @ChoiceIreland for contrast, click the links in the paragraph above.
Word Cloud of @ProLifeCampaign's Twitter Followers

I should perhaps give comment to the statement by Cora that she does not follow many accounts with whom she agrees, for various reasons. I empathise. Were I to follow everyone who tweets about atheism, for instance, I would need to phase out work, sleep, and personal hygiene. Still, I've done every major Irish anti abortion group and found this majority American follower trend is near universal. Frankly it isn't possible that there are large numbers of Irish anti abortion Tweeters that I have missed. One could argue at a stretch that Irish people opposed to abortion do not tweet, but I doubt many would find the thinking convincing and it does leave @ProLifeCampaign in the awkward position of having to justify the time and effort put in to running their Twitter account for a demographic that eschews the medium.

How important is Geography to followers?

"One thing I do know is that when I follow someone, I never really look to see where they are. I only base my follow-decision on what they're saying. 
My point is that Twitter is a fairly flimsy tool for drawing any real conclusions. Unless the holder of an account marshalls it rigorously, it's pretty much just a way of communicating - with whoever's interested in listening and/or talking back. "
 It's clear Cora's comments relate to practices adopted with her personal account and it would be unfair of me to attempt to shoehorn this approach into an official @ProLifeCampaign Twitter policy. Instead I will offer my best guess at where @ProLifeCampaign is garnering its followers, and treat Cora's quote above as merely outlining a competing hypothesis.

Add caption
Steven Ertelt is a slightly odd chap who's managed to garner 50,906 through tweeting about Republican politics, the evils of Obamacare, Republican politics, Planned Parenthood, Republican politics, abortion, and blatant lies, like abortion causing breast cancer. He also finds the time to cast his gaze to Hibernia, mentioning Ireland 33 times over the last three weeks alone. In that time ProLifeCampaign received ten mentions and CoraSherlock benefited from seven - all positive, naturally. I won't bother with screenshots; it seems an incessant trend.

Another digression - two tweets from Ertelt:
"Election confirms we live in a lazy, selfish America that wants government to give them everything in life and rejects responsibility. (1/2)Romney shouldn't be condemned for his 47% remark. He should be criticized for not saying it was 49.5 percent. (2/2)"
Could repeated mentions from an American Republican account with 50,906 followers go some way to explain why the vast overwhelming majority of @ProLifeCampaign's followers were not subject to mandatory Irish in their educational careers? I can bolster my case somewhat by looking to itself.

Here we'll find that and key members of staff are contributing editors:
Ireland Bill to Legalize Abortion Was No Pro-Woman Effort - Author: Dr Ruth Cullen, education officer, Pro Life Campaign.
Court’s Decision Doesn’t Require Ireland to Legislate Abortion - Author: Professor William Binchy, legal adviser, Pro Life Campaign

At this point it may be considered just within the bounds of credibility that Cora was unaware that this major American organisation was giving such prominence, and that those with whom she shares a canteen have articles to their credit. Stranger things have happened. But then I saw the following:

When seeking to explain why @ProLifeCampaign is effectively an American organisation it is frankly a little disappointing that Cora didn't highlight this as a potential cause. Still, back to the hypothesis - is it just that the staff of Pro Life Campaign write general articles unbound by geography, and their followers are attracted by good copy? Every mention of @ProLifeCampaign and every article posted related to Ireland. I really don't see how geography can be discounted in this case.

Finally, a look at the competing hypothesis - is the preponderance of American followers caused by interesting conversations started by @ProLifeCampaign? It seems highly improbable. I went through their timeline to the start of October without seeing a single reply, let alone a conversation.

Is this an important part of the conversation?

Perhaps tact prevented Cora from leaving me with an appropriate quote for this question, but she does allude to this. It's a fair point - tyranny of the majority is no way to decide an issue, and I hope opinions will be forged in finer fires than a headcount. But two repeated arguments I hear is that Pro Life Campaign, Youth Defence, The Life Institute et al represent the majority in Ireland, and that the Pro Choice movement in Ireland is buoyed from the States. I think if this long-running series of Twitter articles has proven anything, it is that the number of supporters in Ireland have been greatly inflated by American groups, and that Pro Choice groups in Ireland are peopled by the Irish.

During the drafting of this response some observed that's donate button must have received thousands of views from US-based accounts. While this is true I have no way of extrapolating how much this would contribute to their finances, but if they do publish an annual report which includes an appropriate breakdown I'd be happy to link to it so the matter could be clarified.

In the meantime my sympathy is with those who hold suspicions.

Addendum: Cora, if you'd rather respond through the medium of a guest post I'm happy to facilitate. Everyone else, consider joining me and hundreds of others in sending a 7pm tweet or Facebook status update in favour of Irish abortion legislation. You can schedule this by going here. Please do.


Anonymous said...

I wonder will Cora reply - it's pretty damning, despite you being so fair. Does Cora believe abortion causes cancer, despite the studies? Will she admit that anti-choice extremists are in the minority and their Twitter and Facebook stats prove it, consistently. Hate to tell you Geoff, you'll get radio silence on this one because what else can Cora/ProLifeCampaign say? "Ignore the facts"?

Matchstick Maker said...

I don't think Ms. Sherlock's argument stood up when I read her original comment, and I still don't. Whilst, yes, we all follow people on Twitter (and in other forms) that we may not agree with but for the VAST majority of followers of an organisation whose beliefs only affect Ireland to be American (or America-based) is blatant distortion. It also backs long-standing claims by so many groups and individuals that Ireland's 'pro-life' campaign receives enormous amounts of money from the US. Ms. Sherlock may believe her personal, somewhat unusual Twitter practices apply, but I don't think many will agree with or believe her.