Twitter followers available on the open market

If the number of people following him on Twitter is any indication, Donovan Martin stands to do well in his bid to become a Winnipeg city councillor in 2014.

Martin has 17,500 followers on Twitter, a popular social media network. That's a giant increase from his 243 followers in February last year.

But CBC News has analyzed Martin's account and learned that, as with some other political and celebrity accounts, many of his Twitter followers are fake. In an interview, Martin conceded that's probably the case.

CBC News used a service at twittercounter.com to analyze Martin's account, which is called @DRMartin2014.

The analysis shows that Martin's account jumped from 243 to nearly 23,000 in a single month last year. In October, another sudden spike in popularity brought his following to its peak, at more than 44,000 followers:

In August, many people accused U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney of having thousands of fake Twitter followers during the course of his campaign. Other politicians have faced similar charges.

The internet has several services that offer to sell Twitter followers to anyone who pays the right price.

Intertwitter.com, for instance, charges $26 for 2,500 followers. The website promises those followers, when bought, will show up within days.

Martin said he was unaware of the suspect Twitter followers before CBC News brought it to his attention, but he believes there was interference from his other Twitter account.

"We have two accounts […] and somehow they're connected," he said in an interview.

Martin said he outsourced the management of his Twitter accounts, and he suspects a marketing company may be behind his account's sudden spike in followers.

"We have to embrace technology and any aspects of marketing," he said, but added that he regrets that his political account got mixed up with his business account.

"It's important that we keep [our two Twitter accounts] separate," he said.

When asked if he would consider buying followers for his political campaign, Martin replied, "Absolutely not. I need to be able to communicate with my constituents […] I need to make sure I can respond accordingly."

Rob Waller, founder and lead developer at Statuspeople.com in the United Kingdom, says his service analyzes Twitter accounts to determine how many of the followers appear real or fake.

"It's just looking for a spam footprint or fingerprint, which is quite blatant," he said.

"It checks how many tweets you're doing, what your friend-to-follower relationship is, and a few other signs like that."

Statuspeople qualifies a Twitter follower as either "good," "inactive," or "fake."

For comparison, CBC News also ran the Twitter accounts associated with Canada's federal party leaders — Prime Minister Stephen Harper (@PMHarper), interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae (@BobRaeMP), NDP Leader Tom Mulcair (@ThomasMulcair), and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May (@ElizabethMay) — through Statuspeople.

Even though all of those leaders showed some suspect followers, Waller said it looks like they have a healthy and active Twitter audience.

Twitter followers aren't the only thing for sale. Sites like Intertwitter also sell Facebook fans and YouTube views. CBC News even found a site willing to provide a fabricated Facebook girlfriend for a price.

Twitter is a powerful communication tool. Pop star Lady Gaga currently has the most followers in the world, according to twittercounter.com — nearly 33 million people.

Winnipeg has seen the power of that type of soap box: one tweet from Lady Gaga launched the career of Winnipeg's own Maria Aragon.

"It comes down to a basic media consumer understanding that what you see on the internet what you see on [the internet] may appear really straightforward, but it may not be what you think it is," said Shannon Sampert, co-chair of the department of politics at the University of Winnipeg.

Though people may be attracted by the lure of instant social media fame, Sampert said the public will eventually catch on.

"It's very much like the Wizard of Oz," she said.

"You know, the great Wizard of Oz was this powerful figure until you drew back the curtain. This is the technology that allows us all to be the Wizard of Oz."

Waller said developing a large and engaged social media following is challenging.

"It's difficult to get 60,000 followers naturally. It's easy to pay a few hundred dollars and buy some fake followers. I think that was the temptation," he said.

"But I think now that we have this tool, that concept is going to die like [spammers] buying a CD or DVD full of email addresses."

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