Depending what industry you work in, the condition of your social media accounts can mean the difference between getting work or losing a job.
But for some, it’s not just posts that they have to think about. For some celebrities, business people and influencers, there’s real-world currency in how many thousands (or millions) of followers they have.
The problem is, some of those thousands, or millions, of followers – are probably fake. A recent report in the New York Times showed that, shockingly, up to 48 million of Twitter’s supposed 330 million monthly active users are in fact fake or ‘bot’ accounts, many built from stolen identities. That’s nearly 15% of all the platform’s accounts.
And unlike some social media companies, Twitter isn’t entirely worried about that, because they actually don’t “require accounts to be associated with a real person”*.
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The proliferation of fake accounts is concerning. Not only when it comes to user privacy—but because of the market created for purchasing these ‘bots’ as followers, and in turn falsely amplifying certain messages. Publishers and commentators with an agenda can increase the popularity of their content, all by buying followers and thus upping the social credibility of their social accounts.
As the NYT puts it, “the number of people who follow, like or ‘friend’ you, has created a news status marker.”
In fact for some entertainers and entrepreneurs, “follower counts on social networks help determine who will hire them, how much they are paid for bookings or endorsements, even how potential customers evaluate their businesses or products”.
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In an interview with Hope 103.2, writer Nicholas Confessore (pictured), who worked on the NYT article, wouldn’t go as far as saying fake followers could affect election results. But he did say they “certainly influence how we talk online”.
“There’s been some great research in how bots shape conversation about politics in different countries – including the US – and how foreign governments can deploy bots to colonise hashtags on social media with propaganda.”
Does it Really Matter if our Followers are Fake?
Purchasing followers is an ethical grey area. Already so much of how we portray ourselves is filtered, diluted, and limited to the highlights—so does it matter if our ‘real’ follower numbers aren’t what they appear to be?
“Some people might say it’s not a big deal, but if you’re a company or an influencer who’s getting paid by an advertiser who thinks they have a million followers and they’re mostly fake, someone is being defrauded,“ says Nicholas.
“The other problem is these [fake accounts] don’t come from nowhere; the highest quality ones are made by stealing the identities of people [already] on social media.”
To think that our culture has come to a point where ‘social identity’ means so much, reflects an interesting change in our value system. The digital world and our status in it, is having a significant impact on how we’re perceived in the real world, and for many, it’s impacting our sense of belonging.
Nicholas says, “It shows how social media has changed what constitutes being a person, and changed how you value yourself.”
“It used be in the old days you had your friends, [they were] your friends, and that’s all that mattered. Now – I have 150,000 followers on Twitter roughly, and that makes me some kind of a person on Twitter, and people impute some value to that in different ways. Somehow it’s become a status symbol and a marker of intrinsic worth of a person and their opinions and beliefs, and that is very strange to me.”
*Quote taken from The New York Times, ‘The Follower Factory’.