Social networking software

Twitter's Fake Followers: Influence For Sale

Mine is bigger than yours -- my Klout rating, that is. Yeah, it's pretty juvenile, but social media is turning into an adolescent measuring contest as the number of friends, followers, and tweets becomes a new digital status symbol. It shouldn't be a surprise then that the most popular measure of clout (and Klout) -- followers on Twitter -- is for sale. And it's not even that expensive.

A security company called Barracuda Labs conducted a study of this recently, 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. Want to get retweeted? No problem. You can buy 2,000 retweets for just $5.

[How to Increase Your Klout Score]

Organizations are in fact buying fake followers, including both major candidates for the White House, numerous other politicians, and scads of celebrities. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, for example, had 673,002 followers on July 20. One day later, that number soared by 17 percent, or 117,000 new followers. On the other side of the partisan divide, President Barack Obama's campaign boasts that he has nearly 19 million followers. However, an analysis by StatusPeople, a social media management company based in London, shows that only 30 percent of them actually exist or have active accounts. To be fair, it's possible that spam bots are creating at least some of the fake accounts.

The implications are serious: Twitter has changed how politics is reported in the United States and has been a weapon used by pro-democracy advocates in countries like Egypt and Iran. It's also a tool used by businesses to stay in touch with customers. To its credit, Twitter has tried to stop the spread of fake accounts and the like, but cheaters and petty profiteers are still eroding its value as a communications tool.

How to fake your Twitter followers (not that you would)
To test whether sites advertising paid followers really deliver, Barracuda Labs set up three Twitter accounts and purchased 20,000 to 70,000 followers for each account. They delivered. Selling followers and tweets is becoming so common, it's part of the underground economy, Jason Ding, a researcher at Barracuda Labs wrote in a blog post.

Not that any of you would ever want to inflate your ego with fake followers and bogus retweets, but if a "friend" wanted to do so, here's where he or she could buy instant Klout. One example ad: "I will deliver 1,200 retweets plus 1,200 favorites and promote it to 430,000 followers within 12 hours for $5." Ironically, at some point such fake followers and fake retweets become like a snake swallowing its own tail, because the fake retweets will be sent to fake followers, who in turn send fake retweets to more fake followers. But we're not there yet.

How can you tell if someone has followers who don't exist or have gone silent? Last month, StatusPeople introduced a Web tool called the Fake Follower Check that it says can ascertain how many fake followers you and your friends have. Lady Gaga, the all-time Twitter champ with nearly 30 million followers, actually has far fewer: Just 29 percent of them actually exist. (Disclosure: I don't have all that many followers, but 82 percent are legit.)

Inactive followers aren't the same as fake or purchased followers; sites like Twitter and Google+ have tremendous churn. But the ultimate effect is the same: There's nobody home on the other end of a tweet.

Who are the biggest Twitter fakers?
On the political front, no one had a higher percentage of fake accounts than former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Social media analytics service PeekYou found last August when he was running for president that 92 percent of his purported 1.3 million followers were fake or inactive. His campaign denied that it purchased followers and couldn't explain how those ghost followers managed to materialize.

Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi and Republican Sen. John McCain weren't far behind. Each has an identical percentage of real followers: 27 percent, according to a nonpartisan group called Advocacy Media, which took a close look at Twitter accounts used by members of Congress.

When it comes to celebrities, a writer at Forbes, who either has a ton of patience or not enough to do, used the Fake Follower Check and found that 70 percent of Justin Beiber's 27 million followers are fake, as are 88 percent of Britney Spears', and 74 percent of Oprah Winfrey's.

Twitter isn't alone. Earlier this month, Facebook admitted it has 83 million fake or duplicate accounts. But look on the bright side. The next time one of your coworkers boasts about how many followers he has, just run that handle through the Fake Followers tool and have a good laugh.

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Post them here (Add a comment) so that all our readers can share them, or reach me at bill@billsnyder.biz. Follow me on Twitter at BSnyderSF.

This article, "Twitter's fake followers: Influence for sale," was originally published by InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog and follow the latest technology business developments at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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