Have Prominent Evangelicals Seen Growth in their Twitter Followers?

By Ryan Burge, Eastern Illinois University

I have always been interested in Twitter as a medium for communication, but at first I was hesitant. Why would anyone want to read the 140 character ramblings of someone else? Somehow, Twitter turned into something more than that. It has become the first app that millions of people use every morning. It could be argued that Twitter helped elect Donald Trump president of the United States. Many companies, celebrities, and politicians use it to make major announcements about upcoming events or products. It is the easiest and most efficient way to get the word out to tens of millions of people in just a few seconds.

Evangelicals have embraced the medium as well. I have written about how evangelicals are discussed on Twitter, as well as how many of Trump’s religious backing were prosperity gospel preachers on Twitter. Back in October 2016 I had one of my industrious graduate students, Rafael Molina, compile a list of what he thought were the most prominent and important evangelical leaders on Twitter. He came up with a list of 88 names that ranged from Joel Osteen to Rob Bell to Jerry Falwell Jr. The list is by no means definitive, but it does contain a nice cross section of people who most evangelicals would know. Having those accounts, we scraped the last 3000 tweets from each account, ending up with a total dataset of around 85,000 tweets. Over the last two years I have been working on putting together a few articles about how these leaders tweet, with some of them in the publication pipeline right now. However, I wanted to revisit just one simple metric that I find fascinating: Twitter followers.

I had another one of my terrific GAs, Kamrul Islam, update my spreadsheet with the follower count for each of the 88 accounts this week. The growth patterns are fascinating. The graph below shows the percent change in growth for all 88 accounts. The average growth of a Twitter account across the 25 months was 16.2%, which is demarcated by a dashed vertical line. For most of the accounts there was growth in the last two years. In fact, of the 88 accounts just 13 saw a net loss in their total followers.

Who are the big winners over the last few years? It’s clearly Jay Sekulow. In 2016 he had just over 64,000 followers; today that number is 308,000. That’s an increase of 380%. TD Jakes saw 260% growth, Jerry Falwell Jr.’s growth was 208%, New York Times columnist Michael Gershon was fourth at 205%, and Franklin Graham rounds out the top five with 177% growth. Notice anything interesting about this list? Three of the top five (Sekulow, Falwell, and Graham) are vocal supporters of Donald Trump. Sekulow is now a member of President Trump’s personal legal team and makes frequent media appearances to defend him against allegations coming from the Mueller investigation. Falwell Jr. is the son of prominent Religious Right leader, Jerry Falwell, and the current President of Liberty University, a behemoth among Christian colleges that boasts a total enrollment of over 45,000 students (most online). He has used his authority to kill stories in the University’s student newspaper that were critical of Donald Trump and has gone on the attack against Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his recusal from the Mueller investigation. Franklin Graham, son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, said that Trump’s affair with adult performer Stormy Daniels was “nobody’s business.”

What about the other side of this, those accounts that have lost followers? The biggest drop in followers is for Bill Hybels, who was the pastor of one of the most important megachurches in the United States: Willow Creek. Hybels and the Willow Creek leadership were embroiled in a controversy regarding Hybel’s alleged sexual harassment of a number of members of the Willow Creek staff. The fallout was tremendous. Every Willow Creek Elder resigned, as well as the two hand picked by Hybels to be his successors. In the wake of all that controversy he deleted his Twitter account. Some of the other drops are inexplicable, but a handful may have an identifiable reason. For instance, Jake Peavy, an outspoken evangelical baseball player has now retired and has seen a drop in followers. Also, Willie Robertson’s reality show “Duck Dynasty” stopped production, which may have led to some of his Twitter followers leaving as well.

There’s one other angle to this that needs attention: Joel Osteen. I have done a lot of analysis of his Twitter account and am constantly amazed at the reach, engagement, and growth of his account. In October of 2016 he had 4.68 million followers and Joyce Meyer had 4.05 million. Today, Osteen boasts 8.63 million, while Mayer has 5.9 million. Below, I visualized the top four accounts in total follower growth, compared to the other 84 accounts together. It’s clear that Joel Osteen’s style of straightforward, simple, and encouraging wisdom is catnip to his fans on Twitter. Consider this: in this two year time frame Osteen’s follower count grew eight times faster than Rick Warren’s. Joel Osteen’s Twitter growth was ten times greater than his wife Victoria’s.

I am not a social media expert, so I don’t know how much to extrapolate from these results overall but I must admit that I was a bit underwhelmed by how little growth many of these accounts had seen over the last two years. As previously stated, the median growth in Twitter followers was about 16% – that seems like a reasonable, but unspectacular rise in followers. Is this isolated to just this one specific part of Twitter? It’s possible that all the evangelicals who wanted to join Twitter had already done so by 2016 and therefore the market had reached saturation and slow growth. Despite this modest growth it’s still crucial to note that many of these accounts have hundreds of thousands of followers and with the viral nature of social media their reach can quickly get into the millions. However, it’s impossible to know if these evangelicals are actually having any success in spreading the Good News to those in the Twittersphere.

Featured Image Credit: Premier Christianity

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website.

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