President Obama has a much better job than me, a lot more money, and lives in a much nicer house. But there’s one area in which I outshine POTUS, and that’s Twitter.
No, I don’t have more followers, but 82 percent of mine (thank you, loyal readers!) are legitimate, compared to just 30 percent of President Obama’s nearly 19 million followers. The rest either don’t exist (I’ll explain that in a minute) or are inactive.
Gov. Romney and Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle have lots of bogus followers too. Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find a big-politician or celebrity whose real Twitter following is anywhere close to the stated number.
How do we know this? StatusPeople, a social media management company in London, released a Web tool last month called the Fake Follower Check that it says can determine how many fake followers you and your friends have.
One could wonder how accurate the tool is — I have no idea how you could verify the numbers — but it is certain that many people and businesses inflate the number of Twitter followers by simply buying fake ones.
A security company called Barracuda Labs launched a study of this a few months back, saying it needed to protect clients from phishing and other Internet scams. The company found that “there are 20 eBay sellers and 58 websites (within top 100 returns of searching ‘buy twitter followers’ in Google) where people can buy (fake) followers.” The average price to buy 1,000 followers is $18, the company said.
To be sure that those sites really do sell followers, Barracuda Labs set up three fake Twitter accounts and purchased from 20,000 to 70,000 followers for each account. Selling followers and tweets is becoming so common that it’s part of the underground economy, Jason Ding, a researcher at Barracuda Labs wrote in a blog post.
Ding and his colleagues may not have found the best deal. A site called fiverr.com offers to sell 1,000 “real” Twitter follower for $5.
Inflating the number of Twitter followers is probably good business for politicians, movie stars, and businesses that want to appear more popular than they really are. It doesn’t cost much, and as long as people think having scads of followers is a big deal, it’s probably cost effective. And who wants to be the movie star or Senator with the fewest followers? It’s also an ego boost for blowhards who want to feel important.
This scam also makes clear that Klout — a truly obnoxious Web site that purports to tell you how important you are by measuring things like mentions on Twitter and other social media sites — is not worth taking seriously. It’s also important for businesses that spend a lot of time and money on social media to realize that they may be sending marketing messages to bots and may be paying celebrities too much for an endorsement if it is based on a mostly bogus Twitter following.
If you’re curious about which politicians have inflated numbers of followers, take a look at this blog by a group called Advocacy Media. The group plugged in the names of hundreds of politicians and found some interesting results.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.