With the U.S. presidential election still a few months away, things are heating up between current President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney. And that heat is finding its way into the realm of social media, too.
The most recent flare-up in the world of social media has been over fake followers on Twitter, with both presumptive presidential candidates being accused of not having all their followers being living, breathing humans.
The controversy started (at least, this time around) when a report from Barracuda Labs found that about 15 per cent of Mitt Romney's Twitter followers are fake accounts. This investigation came on the heels of a landmark weekend for the @MittRomney Twitter account, as it amassed 116,922 followers in just 24 hours.
"Based on the above distinguishable features, we believe most of these recent followers of Romney are not from a general Twitter population but most likely from a paid Twitter follower service," said Research Scientist Jason Ding in the report. Ars Technica reports he was referencing the fact that one quarter of the accounts were less than a day old and 23 per cent had never sent out a tweet. To further prove the point, ten per cent have since been suspended by Twitter.
Before Obama's camp could get too pleased with this news, a website called StatusPeople conducted an analysis on the @BarackObama account and found that of Obama's 18.6 million Twitter followers, approximately 41 per cent were fake users and 29 per cent were inactive. StatusPeople offers a web tool that analyzes your Twitter account followers and splits them into three categories: "good," "inactive" and "fake."
It should be taken into account that everyone has their fair share of fake followers on Twitter, and the bigger you are, the more you'll pick up. My personal account, @Floyd_Tori, is quite small (I have proudly just crossed the 100 follower mark!). Of those 100 people, a quick check on the StatusPeople tool tells me that 3 per cent are fake, 26 per cent are inactive, and 71 per cent are real human beings tweeting on the other end.
But the fake users connected to my account, and to most users' accounts, are generally bots the follow when you tweet a certain keyword. The accounts that are of real concern here are the ones that are purchased in order to make Twitter accounts look more popular, and therefore more legitimate in the eyes of the public.
Last August, one of Newt Gingrich's former staffers came forward and said that the 80 per cent of Gingrich's Twitter followers were fake. While Gingrich's campaign said that the former Republican nominee updated his @newtgingrich account all himself (to give it a "personal touch"), the anonymous staffer said that the majority of Gingrich's 1,300,000 (now 1,400,000) followers were purchased from "follow agencies," which create fake accounts for the explicit purpose of boosting someone's number of followers. Gingrich denied these claims.
[ More from The Right Click: Twitter launches spam crackdown with federal lawsuit ]
And Gingrich is far from the only one. For an average of $18 USD, you can purchase 1,000 Twitter followers, WebProNews reports. According to a recent study by Barracuda Labs, at least 11,283 Twitter users were found to have purchased fake followers to bolster their numbers. These followers are sold through eBay and dozens of dedicated websites, and one dealer can control as many as 150,000 fake Twitter accounts. You can read more tidbits from the Barracuda Labs report here.
Because it can sometimes be difficult to tell which accounts are real and which are fake, there's one big takeaway from all of this: it isn't always worth judging a political candidate based on the number of followers they have.
Eric Hyers, campaign manager for a Rhode Island congressional candidate, said it best when discussing a Twitter follower-purchasing controversy that had surrounded his candidate's opponent:
"What kind of person buys fake friends to make it look like he's more popular than he is?" Hyers said in a CBC story. "It's really kind of pathetic… Who cares how many followers you have?"