This article has been updated.
During the daily press briefing at the White House on Tuesday, press secretary Sean Spicer was asked about President Trump’s tweet earlier in the day claiming that the media was trying to get him to stop tweeting. (We very much are not.)
Wasn’t it the case, Spicer was asked, that Trump often does himself more harm than good with his from-the-hip tweeting?
“The president is the most effective messenger on his agenda,” Spicer replied. “I think his use of social media — he now has a collective total of close to 110 million people across different platforms — gives him an opportunity to speak straight to the American people, which has proved to be a very, very effective tool.”
One can debate whether Trump’s Twitter feed has been terribly effective at making him successful, post-election. But one cannot debate the assertion that Trump has 110 million people following him on social media, because he doesn’t.
Trump has at least two accounts on four of the biggest social media platforms. Combined, those accounts have about 93.1 million followers. Here they are, in descending order of number of followers. (All figures are as of writing.)
- @realdonaldtrump on Twitter, 31,723,753 followers
- DonaldTrump on Facebook, 22,380,849 followers
- @POTUS on Twitter, 18,550,517 followers
- WhiteHouse on Facebook, 8,249,626 followers
- realdonaldtrump on Instagram, 6,973,811 followers
- whitehouse on Instagram, 3,588,304 followers
- POTUS on Facebook, 1,684,255 followers
- potus on Instagram, 3,877 followers
Trump’s got accounts on Snapchat, too: realdonaldtrump and whitehouse. Snapchat doesn’t release public figures about the number of followers.
Clearly, 93.1 million is a smaller number than 110 million. So where do those other 17-odd million come from? Some come from Snapchat, but generally, it’s not clear. The term “social media” is nebulous. Does YouTube count? Trump’s account there has about 109,000 followers. What about Reddit? The virulent pro-Trump community r/The_Donald claims 6 million subscribers, but that’s not social media, and that figure should be taken with a grain of salt.
But even if we manage to cobble together some number that gets close to 110 million, there are two very good reasons that Trump’s not followed by 110 million people. First, a lot of those people follow multiple accounts across those networks and, second, some followers are robots.
This latter point seized the public’s imagination last week as rumors that Trump was buying Twitter followers were rampant. (Trump saw an uptick in his follower count, but not by the millions, and there’s no indicator that anything untoward was happening.) But those rumors centered around the idea that an army of “bots” — that is, automated accounts driven by code, not people — was being created to … do something nefarious. People dutifully plugged Trump’s Twitter accounts into tools that try to estimate how many fake accounts followed Trump and determined that perhaps half of his followers fit that description.
It’s important here to interject with two other important points. First of all, “bots” play the role in the public imagination that “atomic energy” played in 1950s comic books. It’s this sort of vaguely understood thing that’s generally assumed to be bad, and the negative effects of “bots” are blown way out of proportion. Bots are our modern boogeyman, and we tend to overinflate their existence and impact. That includes those “are my followers bots?” tools, which just look at how often people have tweeted and when their accounts were created and so on, and are therefore not necessarily a good guide to how many of the accounts actually aren’t driven by humans.
That said, there are certainly thousands or millions of followers of the @realdonaldtrump account who are actually automated accounts. There are also any number of followers that are tied to businesses or tied back to the same individual. For example, I have probably a dozen Twitter accounts tied to my name, since I make little bots like @trumphop, which automatically retweets old Trump tweets. Lots of other people have multiple accounts, too.
Which loops us back to the first point. If you’re active on political Twitter, you probably follow both @realdonaldtrump and @POTUS. You may follow both Trump and the White House on Facebook. Trump fans almost certainly follow him on both Twitter and Facebook, and probably Instagram, too. It’s very fair to assume that at least half of the followers on Trump’s social media accounts also follow one of his other accounts — which would mean that, instead of 93.1 million people following him, the number is closer to 47 million.
But let’s be more generous than that and assume that not everyone follows him on at least two of those accounts. Let’s assume that only a third do. That would mean that about 62.3 million people follow him on social media — or about one person for every vote he got last year. And many of those people live outside the United States or are bots.
In short, Spicer’s count of how many people are tracking Trump on social media is clearly inflated. But then, this is the guy whose first day on the job was spent defending the claim that 1.5 million people attended Trump’s inauguration.
Maybe Spicer’s just bad at math.
Update: And maybe I’m bad at Facebook. Added the POTUS account there, after missing it first time around.