The Fake Following: Should Influence Be Bought?

Depending what kind of industry you work in, the condition of your social media accounts can be the difference between getting work and losing a job. All of us have to be mindful of the content we share and its public availability, but for celebrities, business people and ‘influencers’, there’s real-world currency in how many followers they have, and the social cachet it provides.

Listen Now: The New York Times Nicholas Confessore on the era of fake followers.

In The New York Times recently, a report was released showing that up to 48 million of Twitter’s supposed 330 million monthly active users are in fake. That’s nearly 15% of all accounts. Which unlike some social media companies, Twitter isn’t totally against because they don’t “require accounts to be associated with a real person*.”

The population of fake accounts though 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 amplifying certain messages, news, and public opinions all by upping the social credibility of the accounts they follow.

“The number of people who follow, like or ‘friend’ you, has created a news status marker,” reports the NYT. For some entertainers and entrepreneurs, “followers 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.”

Speaking with the NYT’s Nicholas Confessore who contributed to the piece, he says he wouldn’t go so far as to say fake followers could affect the result of an election, but did say, “[they] certainly influence how we talk online. There’s been some great research in how bots shape conversation about politics indifferent countries – including the US – and how foreign governments can deploy bots to colonise hashtags on social media with propaganda.”

Purchasing followers is certainly an ethical grey area when it comes to social media use. Already so much of how we portray ourselves is filtered, diluted, and limited to the highlights, so why 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 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 its ecosystem have a significant bearing on how we’re perceived in real-world scenarios, and where we gain 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.


Photo: Laura Bennett

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