Justin Bieber is the most popular man in the world on Twitter.
Or is he?
With 38 million Twitter followers, the Biebs leads the likes of popular celeb tweeters Lady Gaga and Katy Perry (36 million apiece), Rihanna (29 million), and Kim Kardashian (18 million). But those staggering numbers are not what they seem. In fact, many celebrity Twitter followers and Facebook "Likes" are just plain fake.
Thanks to new software innovations, it's easier than ever for social media entrepreneurs, or "fake follower brokers," to create fake accounts or "bots."
"Automation software is responsible for the creation and maintenance of fake accounts and will typically purchase and integrate other software that has already learned how to bypass [site security checks]," Mark Wuergler, a senior security researcher at Immunity Inc., explains to omg!. He estimates that the market for fake followers is now a multimillion-dollar industry.
However, he also points out that the downside to fake accounts is that they can easily be identified if they're not kept active. "The most difficult element of creating fake accounts is to maintain them to make the followers look active and legitimate -- not creating them."
A couple of recent articles in The New York Times's Bits blog have pointed out the prevalence of celebrities and politicians who have had massive single-day leaps in their numbers of followers, a sign that these followers have likely been purchased. The leaps are especially glaring when the person has not been a part of a major news story, such as NBA player Jason Collins gaining nearly 100,000 followers in 24 hours following his coming out as a gay athlete. The Times's reports have been based primarily around two Italian security researchers, who called out some fairly famous folks (including 50 Cent and Diddy) who had gained large amounts of Twitter followers in short periods of time. These two researchers estimate that there are nearly 20 million fake accounts right now on Twitter.
Online magazine Slate spoke recently with a company called Socialbakers, which analyzes social media statistics. Per Socialbakers's estimates, almost half of Bieber's 37.3 million Twitter followers (as of early April) are fake (16.7 million) or inactive (2.6 million), leaving him with 17.8 million "good" followers. This would actually put his number of "good" followers behind Lady Gaga's, whom Socialbakers estimates at 19 million.
There are over two dozen sites trading in fake followers, according to the Times, "which include Fiverr, SeoClerks, InterTwitter, FanMeNow, LikedSocial, SocialPresence, and Viral Media Boost." As little as $5 buys you 250,000 retweets and 2,500 new followers.
StatusPeople.com is one site out there that offers a "Fake Follower Check" analysis of Twitter accounts. Checking the site on April 30, 2013, it found these stats for some of the top followed folks:
Justin Bieber: 32% Fake, 31% Inactive, 37% Good
Lady Gaga: 51% Fake, 30% Inactive, 19% Good
Katy Perry: 40% Fake, 32% Inactive, 28% Good
Kim Kardashian: 29% Fake, 30% Inactive, 40% Good
Barack Obama: 56% Fake, 27% Inactive, 17% Good
Twitter says that no single account is able to follow more than 1,000 new people in a single day. According to its rules, linked to from the terms of service, "You may not impersonate others through the Twitter service in a manner that does or is intended to mislead, confuse, or deceive others." Twitter also has strict rules about spam and explains that accounts will be suspended for violating the terms of service. Twitter PR has not responded to requests for comment regarding the site's approach to policing fake follower brokers.
This all can lead to a major legitimacy problem for celebrities. Rick Sorkin, vice president of talent marketing for WhoSay (disclosure: Yahoo! has an editorial content partnership with WhoSay), notes that buying fake followers can backfire. "Celebrities may have spent real money for fake followers, only to see them disappear en masse, overnight, which is never a good thing," he explains. "I've seen cases of talent losing 20,000 followers a day, for a few days in a row. You can imagine how upsetting that is for the celebrity as well as the real fans. Not to mention the brand implications if their network or studio is actively targeting their fans for marketing efforts."
And though Facebook certainly has a problem with brokers selling fake "Likes" as well, fake accounts seems to be more of a concern for Twitter. "While there are plenty of fake Facebook accounts, by most accounts, that number pales in comparison to the number of fake Twitter accounts," says Sorkin. "In classifying this as a 'problem' for Twitter, we must point out that this inflated number helps their overall user base numbers, something very important for valuation and economics."
So, what's the bottom line here in terms of social media dollarization? "The narrative has changed already," Sorkin continues. "There is a small group of people who can relentlessly sell products in-stream to their followers, and not see a negative impact on their personal brand. For most celebrities though, gathering the data around their fans is more important. Building a long-term asset to identify a fan across the web -- for the length of the artist's career -- is always going to win out over simply shilling for product in their feed. Bottom line -- authenticity is always more valuable than faking the funk."
And the last thing Biebs, Gaga, Katy, and Rihanna -- and their millions of legit fans -- want to do is fake it.
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