PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Forget ballot box irregularities. There's a virtual dust-up under way over how Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney amassed more than 100,000 new Twitter followers in just one weekend.
It may seem trivial, but not to social networking junkies or campaigns mindful of the need to project a digital image of popularity and power.
An analysis by the technology firm Barracuda Labs found most of the Twitter users who followed Romney over that July weekend were probably fake, although it's impossible to know who's behind the spike: Romney's campaign, a supporter or an opponent. Romney went from 673,000 to 814,000 followers during that time, though that number has since risen to more than 861,000. President Barack Obama has more than 18 million followers.
Zac Moffatt, digital director for Romney's campaign, said the campaign did not purchase the followers and the number is not something they care about.
"If winning were about having the most Twitter followers, Obama would get blown up by Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber," Moffatt said. "It's whether people are retweeting or sharing. That is what is of value to us."
Retweeting is passing someone else's message on to the people who follow you on Twitter.
Brian Frederick, a professor of political science at Massachusetts' Bridgewater State University, said some lesser-known candidates might see a benefit from bulked-up followers if it means reporters and activists take them more seriously. It's a way for a candidate to create an illusion of popularity.
But Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University, said there are no upsides and many downsides for any campaign that fakes its following because voters don't really care about the numbers.
"They do care if you're a fraud. They do care if you're lying about who supports you," Schiller said. "Why risk your credibility as a politician by engaging in that?"
Social media can be key in motivating campaign supporters, although experts say quality is more important than quantity. About 80 people work in the Romney campaign's digital department, a large portion of them on social media, Moffatt said. The Obama campaign said social media allow the campaign to communicate directly with voters without a filter but would not say how many of its staffers are directly engaged in it.
Zach Green is chief executive of 140elect, a Twitter-specific political consulting service, and runs 2012twit.com, which keeps Twitter statistics on the Obama and Romney campaigns. While Obama has more followers and tweets more frequently than Romney, Green's statistics show Romney's tweets are more widely shared.
It's easy and inexpensive to purchase followers on Twitter. Websites advertise 10,000 Twitter followers for as little as $52. Twitter prohibits the use of such services, as does Facebook, which also prohibits providing false personal information and creating more than one personal account. But a fake name and an email address are enough to get around those prohibitions. Facebook estimates nearly 4 percent of its 950 million users are not actual people. Similar statistics for Twitter are unavailable because it is privately held.
Similar questions about fake followers swirled around Newt Gingrich, who last year denied reports he paid for any of his 1.3 million Twitter followers.
The issue has played out in lower-level races as well.
In Rhode Island, little-known Democratic congressional candidate Anthony Gemma has 937,000 followers, nearly double the number of people who live in his district. Incumbent Democrat David Cicilline has a comparatively puny 3,500 followers.
Gemma, a businessman, has been making unusual claims regarding social media for years. When he first ran for Congress in 2010, he boasted he had more connections than Obama on the professional networking site LinkedIn, a claim that left some people scratching their heads as to why it was even worth mentioning.
More recently, he has seen several wild spikes in his Twitter following, which has reached 1 million on a few occasions. Many of his followers are in far-flung places like Russia with no obvious connection to Rhode Island, or have no photo or personal information on their profiles and have never sent a tweet.
Gemma's campaign manager, Michelle Place Gleason, would not comment on whether the campaign had paid to bulk up its numbers. She said the flap hadn't eroded his credibility. His opponent's campaign has made plenty of noise about it.
"What kind of person buys and fakes friends to make it look like he's more popular than he is? It's really kind of pathetic," Cicilline's campaign manager, Eric Hyers, said. "This whole thing is bizarre. Who cares how many followers you have?"
Michelle R. Smith can be reached at http://twitter.com/MRSmithAP