Yesterday Newt Gingrich laid out a new argument for why he should be the GOP presidential nominee: He's got the most Twitter followers. But according to a former Gingrich staffer, he bought them.

Gingrich complained yesterday that the press is ignoring his prodigious Twitter audience: "I have six times as many Twitter followers as all the other candidates combined, but it didn't count because if it counted I'd still be a candidate; since I can't be a candidate that can't count." Which is true! Gingrich currently boasts 1,325,842 followers, whereas competitors Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann have yet to crack 100,000.

But if Newt is winning the Twitter primary, it's because of voter fraud. A former staffer tells us that his campaign hired a firm to boost his follower count, in part by creating fake accounts en masse:

Newt employs a variety of agencies whose sole purpose is to procure Twitter followers for people who are shallow/insecure/unpopular enough to pay for them. As you might guess, Newt is most decidedly one of the people to which these agencies cater.

About 80 percent of those accounts are inactive or are dummy accounts created by various "follow agencies," another 10 percent are real people who are part of a network of folks who follow others back and are paying for followers themselves (Newt's profile just happens to be a part of these networks because he uses them, although he doesn't follow back), and the remaining 10 percent may, in fact, be real, sentient people who happen to like Newt Gingrich. If you simply scroll through his list of followers you'll see that most of them have odd usernames and no profile photos, which has to do with the fact that they were mass generated. Pathetic, isn't it?

That's quite a different explanation for Gingrich's Twitter popularity than the one offered by this Politico story on the subject: "[I]t's his personal touch: He tweets and manages his Twitter feed himself, his campaign confirmed to POLITICO. All told, he has tweeted 2,611 times in the 29 months since he joined the site."

While it would be impossible to survey all of Gingrich's followers, a cursory glance immediately turned up a few accounts that featured odd names, no personal information, no followers, no posts, and a small follow list. And there's certainly a healthy market out there for buying Twitter followers, either by hiring a company to strategically follow accounts that will follow you back or by paying for dummy accounts. If Gingrich did goose his Twitter numbers, it would help explain why he has, for instance, more than twice as many followers as Sarah Palin, which just doesn't sound right.

The Gingrich campaign didn't respond to a message seeking comment.

UPDATE: A couple folks have pointed to one possible explanation for Gingrich's high follow count—he is on Twitter's recommended follow list, a privilege that has launched other political accounts to similar heights. But not all—John Boehner and Sarah Palin are both on the same list as Gingrich, and neither one comes close to approaching his numbers.

[Photo via Getty Images]