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What is going on with Mitt Romney’s Twitter account?

On the face of it, Mitt Romney’s social media outreach efforts were paying off amazingly over the last week, with the Republican Presidential nominee’s Twitter account gaining more than 75,000 new followers in the space of a day. Many cried foul, and evidence of some suspect activity has surfaced, but it’s still very unclear about just what has actually happened.

The 140 Elect blog – which tracks Twitter usage and the way it affects/is affected by the 2012 US Presidential elections – was the first to notice the unexplained leap in Romney’s microblogging fortunes last Friday, with a post headlined “Is Mitt Romney Buying Twitter Followers?” Inside the post, Zach Green was a little more open to interpretation: “I’m not saying he bought them, but Romney’s follower stats have taken a sharp and sudden rise since Friday 5PM EST,” he wrote, adding “Personally, I think this is too obvious for the Romney campaign to have done. It’s more likely somebody is trying to plant a story to embarrass him.”

It quickly became clear that those 75,000+ new followers weren’t actually real; for one thing, five of them had exactly the same avatar photo – one that belonged to Internet marketed Ben Sarma, who wasn’t one of the many new Mitt followers. Sarma wrote to each of them, saying “not sure how this happened, but you are using my picture on your profile. Though I’m flattered, please change it” (The photos remain in place on each profile, as of time of writing); describing the Twitter newcomers, Sarma tweeted that “they have surprisingly good taste when it comes to stealing profile pics,” adding later that “I’ll never look at this pic of me the same way.”

For their part, the Romney campaign seems to be as confused as everyone else. “We have reached out to Twitter to find out additional information regarding the rapid growth,” campaign digital director Zak Moffat told Buzzfeed, denying that the campaign was trying to artificially boost Romney’s follower count. It’s obvious, of course, that the boost is entirely artificial (Many of the new followers have names that follow the pattern of “@[name][randomletters]” such as @shaunmorrowjq, @catherncxz  and @duffchzx – All profiles using Sarma’s picture – suggesting that the names are being automatically generated using some formula, for example), but that still doesn’t answer who could be behind the bump.

While it’s perfectly possible that this is the Romney campaign being especially sloppy, the more common suggestion for what’s going on is an attempt to discredit Romney via this stunt. As Slate’s Will Oremus – himself a Democrat – puts it, “That sounds almost as bizarre, but it is true that the fake followers play into some Obama-friendly narratives: that Romney is uncool, that he can’t connect socially to real people, that he relies on his riches to buy success.” As it stands, we’ll have to chalk this one up to strange-and-dumb… and wonder whether we’re likely to see more such online pranks before the November election.