Dec. 22 2015 03:23 PM

Local Republican Party’s follower numbers are unusually high

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The San Diego County GOP page on Facebook outpaces the state’s page.

President Eisenhower came and went too soon. His 1950s campaign slogan would have been perfect for Facebook: "I Like Ike."

But who knows what the Supreme Allied commander would have made of today's San Diego County Republican Party? First its chairman gets Twitter-tossed for creating fake Democratic accounts. Now flags are being raised about his party's Facebook page. Like, are those likes for real?

Some suspect thousands were bought—and are bogus.

On Nov. 13, the county GOP page boasted 24,410 likes—with the leading country of followers being the Philippines. On Dec. 15, it was 24,420. By comparison, the Orange County GOP Facebook page has 4,355 likes, Riverside 1,150 and Los Angeles County 1,359. The San Diego GOP also kicks butt on Kansas GOP (15,764) and Nevada (2,233).

More telling is the "People Talking About This" metric—a seven-day count of page comments, items shared or tagged and other interactions. In mid-December, it was 78—about three-tenths of 1 percent of followers. Not good.

Asked how his page got 24,000 followers, San Diego County GOP executive director T.J. Zane said, "With a lot of diligence."

Does that include buying likes from a commercial service?

"Negative," he said in a phone interview. San Diego's vast superiority over other local sites is because "we're a lot better than them."

Zane said Sage Naumann, the local GOP's digital manager, wasn't the only one who deserves credit since "it's a cumulative effect of a number of people over the years."

Naumann, the young social media manager for county Republicans, has a checkered past on Facebook. In 2014, on the eve of the November elections, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported how Carlsbad school board candidate Naumann, then 19, posted images five years earlier on Facebook showing him, at Halloween time, wearing a German military uniform and commenting: "Sad Natsi [sic] mourns the loss of ze Fuhrer" and "Angry German waiting for candy." Even The Daily Mail in London had the story. Naumann said he regretted the youthful indiscretion.

That aside, experts aren't so sure about the validity of the GOP's likes.

"Yes, the evidence...does show they are very likely buying likes," said Holly Berkley, an Internet marketing consultant and author who once taught at San Diego State University. "First off, whoever is buying the likes for them has it open to way too large of an audience (top likes are from the Philippines?)"

Buying Facebook likes can be a great way to gain exposure, she says, but it has to be done the right way.

"You have to select targeted groups (for example, people who live in San Diego and may already be connected to another Republican group or cause)," Berkley says. "When people buy likes and open it up to everyone on Facebook, that is when the fake likes roll in and really hurt your page credibility and engagement."

Facebook's algorithm, which distributes posts to news feeds, punishes low-engagement pages.

San Diego State University lecturer Kevin Popovic, who this year was named the No. 14 "digital strategist" nationally by the Online Marketing Institute, says basic Facebook strategy is to promote a fan page. He's fine with buying followers.

"Organic takes a long time; paid decreases the time for adoption," he said. "Investing in promoting your page to an audience that may have self-determined interests, like adding 'Republican' to their Facebook profile, is just good communication strategy. Offer them what they want."

But the use of fake followers rankles the likes of Kris Eitland, recent president of the San Diego Press Club.

"Of course it's unethical to buy likes," Eitland said via Facebook chat. "But people are sheep. We respond to ads and buzz. In addition, buying likes is par with buying positive restaurant and [business] reviews. Right? Rotten, but it works and it's cheap."

Even with the burning odor, demonstrating that the county GOP is cooking the books is tough.

"It sounds like there's some smoke there, but proving the fire will be difficult," said Martin Beck, social media reporter for Search Engine Land.

"I'm not aware of any way to pin down whether a page has bought likes. The fact that not many people are engaging with the page isn't enough to make that conclusion. Plenty of pages with a high number of real likes have bad engagement for various reasons, including posting stuff that's not very interesting to people."

Officially, Facebook frowns on like farms, even shutting down fake Facebook accounts created for the "liking" business. But Mark Zuckerberg's behemoth can't keep up.

The sky-high like count also raised the eyebrows of Mary Moran, a former Republican and spokesperson for the religious right and other causes.

"This alleged purchasing of FB likes by the SD GOP does not surprise me one bit," she said via email. "These figures indicate a strong [aversion] to what the R Party represents—or no longer represents, conservatism. Personally, I left the party in 2013 after many years of activism with them. Why did I leave? Because essentially they left me, my conservative values, when they became moderate."

She says thousands of "true conservatives" have left the Republican Party. Perhaps they forgot to unfollow on Facebook?

Francine Busby, the county Democratic Party chairwoman, says she's been leery of the GOP likes: "We monitor the engagement of pages similar to ours, and there have been red flags in the past."

She calls the likelihood of fake likes a sign that GOP management is "either disengaged in its outreach to San Diegans, or has green-lighted a form of fraud—or both."

Busby says local Dems don't buy likes—although "we do occasionally pay to promote posts or our page, but that's a social media management norm."

Facebook-gate, this is not.

Still, Busby says, "It seems silly, but the real question is: If they are willing to lie about something so trivial, what else are they lying about?"

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