It’s been a bad week for Twitter fans. First, the company hinted that the new Twitter API would break a whole lot of third-party developer’s software. Now, StatusPeople has proven that a whole lot of people’s all-important follower count is fake as @FakeSteveJobs.
StatusPeople is a company that makes “social media platforms for business.” But unlike many companies with that mission statement, it doesn’t just promise to get your business more followers; it helps you figure out how many of your existing followers are spammers, inactive, or otherwise mere social media clutter. That’s the purpose of their Fake Follower Check, an application that runs a follower list through a set of spam criteria. FFC mostly looks for followers who have few or no followers or tweets, but follow a lot of people themselves. It’s not exactly a bulletproof algorithm – will no one hear the silence of social media’s introverts – but it’s not bad as a quick and dirty review system.
Things get more interesting when you run Fake Follower Check on other people’s follower lists. A clever reporter at Business Insider decided to run some Twitter-loving celebrities through the FFC, and discovered that pop stars like Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga have follower lists that are 45 to 48 percent fake, President Barack Obama’s follower list is about 41 percent phony, and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has a follower list that’s 22 percent spammers. Over at Metafilter, user crunchland decided to check for both fake and inactive accounts on the follower lists of prominent right-wing political figures, and discovered that not only were the faker numbers high, but Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, and Barack Obama all had more fake and inactive followers than real people.
All of this would be nothing more than drive-by schadenfreude if not for the fact that many media outlets, celebrities, politicians and corporations use follower counts as a measure of their real-world success. When Newt Gingrich was trying to convince the press that his presidential candidacy wasn’t just a scheme to get casino billionaires to buy him lunch, he pointed to his follower count as proof of his grassroots popularity, only to be accused of buying that count. Similar accusations have been lobbed at Mitt Romney, whose follower list included a number of users whose only presence online was a page offering to increase your Twitter following for a modest charge.
Why would anyone pay for a bunch of fake followers? First and foremost, because it leads to real followers. Jason Rundle, at PR Daily, tried buying a block of 1,000 fake followers to see if it would affect his real follower count, and was depressed to find that “my new, lifeless flock convinced other real people that the profile was popular and influential.” That kind of increase can have real consequences when a high follower count can bring Hollywood agents and major publishers to your virtual door, reasoning that anyone with that many followers must have a built-in fan base. Even Saudi clerics are taking an official position on the ethics of buying fake followers; as with most things Saudi clerics take a position on, they think it’s bad.
The practice of paying people to simulate popularity predates Twitter, the Internet, and the English language. Long before the Roman Empire, rich men would hire professional mourners to follow their funeral trains making a great show of weeping to convince bystanders of their noble character. The practice was so common that the Greek legislator Solon banned it in 6th century B.C., though it remained both frequent and frequently banned well into the 19th century. On a similar but more cheerful note, the word “claque”, today used to refer to a politician’s advocates, originated in early 19th century France, when professional agencies would arrange for crowds of any paid-for size to come cheer your theatrical or operatic performance, a useful service in the days when riots would often break out over who had the bigger audience. So while buying followers may be a sleazy way to get donations, press attention, and ego gratification, it is at least a charming outbreak of traditionalism in the new media world.