Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Italian comedian-turned-political activist Beppe Grillo have more than just politics in common: Both have been accused of buying thousands of Twitter followers.
And they’re not the only luminaries who may have taken this path to an instant following. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and USA Today sports handicapper Danny Sheridan, not to mention companies like CNN have also apparently boosted their Twitter presence in this way.
To be sure, Romney denies that he purchases friends like car elevators but the evidence that he does is hard to ignore. As calculated by Zack Green on 140elect.com, Romney had been averaging 3000 to 4000 new Twitter followers per day for much of July, but in the three days from July 21 through July 23, he added more than 130,000 fans.
It is possible for a well-known public figure like Romney to enjoy a major jump in Twitter followers from a highly publicized speech or even a gaffe. But The Atlantic website assessed the quality of the new accounts linked to Romney and found that a large number of his new followers had five or fewer followers of their own. Which is a telltale sign that many of Romney’s newfound friends are Twitter bots – essentially fake Twitter accounts that won't retweet, share your content, or mention you on Twitter.
No one has analyzed Gingrich’s Twitter followers in the same way but he raised eyebrows after he quickly amassed more than 1.3 million followers while running for the GOP Presidential nod, when his opponents, including Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann, had yet to hit 100,000. In like fashion, Grillo, who leads an Italian direct democracy advocate group called Movement Five Stars, raised suspicion as his Twitter follower count crossed 600,000 – a large number for an Italian celebrity.
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Given these incidents it’s only natural to wonder why a public figure (or a well-known company) would risk the embarrassment that comes from conceding that they have to use artificial means to attract Twitter followers? And more importantly, what benefit is there in buying followers that are obviously fake?
To answer those questions, I decided to walk in Romney’s shoes, if just for a short time; I bought some followers of my own.
How To Buy Twitter Followers
Buying Twitter followers is a cinch. Numerous different websites offer cheap deals on big bundles of Twitter followers. On a recent search of Fiverr, a website that offers a smattering of different things for five dollars, a user could purchase anywhere from 1,000 to 25,500 new followers within two days. The higher amount offered, the more likely the majority of the followers are bots, though.
Some companies on Fiverr offered what they claimed to be "real users”, but it is still doubtful that you'll get much of a boost in your reach through these accounts. These more expensive bundles often include college-aged kids looking to make some extra money or more likely, users outside the United States. They differ from bots in that they are real people, but they still won't provide much of a boost in retweets or sharing; they are paid to follow not to actively participate.
On July 10 I bought a sizable Twitter bundle for five dollars and was rewarded with close to 9,000 followers within 24 hours; I only had a few thousand before. Yet, despite this large group of new followers, my retweets and mentions haven't dramatically improved.
Nor has my Klout score risen much. Klout is a service that monitors your true social influence -- it sees through the fake Twitter followers and shows your actual reach through social media platforms. It does so by monitoring your various social media platforms, i.e. Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr and records how often your content is shared and by whom. Thus, if one tens of thousands new followers that are bots, one's Klout score isn't likely to improve because it is impossible for the bots to share content.
"Social media is all about building relationships with your audience,” said Catriona Harris, who owns Uproar PR, a firm that has helped companies in developing their Web presences. “You aren't doing that if they are fake people. I'm of the belief it doesn't provide any sort of validation."
What is Gained By Buying Followers?
One reason for buying Twitter followers, said author Erik Qualman, is trying to replicate the "night club effect."
"It's human nature to want to get into the night club where there is a long line,” said Qualman, who wrote "Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business." “Same human dynamics play here.
If a person has 5,000 followers and another has 75,000 followers then you inherently feel that person must be somebody. Nobody knows if you paid for followers."
That mindset works well enough for celebrities or athletes, notes Jason Falls, chief executive officer of Social Media Explorer, which provides content about social media trends. He calls that desire to follow well-known stars on Twitter “pop culture rubbernecking” – something that is less likely to occur with politicians.
"I'm going to follow an athlete not because I trust that person's product endorsements but I want him to amuse me,” said Falls. “"I don't think people follow Romney for the (same reasons). I think they follow him because they are conservative, are Republicans, or want to simply retweet. With celebrities the psychology is different."
Romney's efforts to boost his Twitter following could be simply an attempt to gain some Web cred, which is opponent already has – and perhaps inroads with a younger, more computer-literate electorate. President Barack Obama has built up a whopping 18.1 million followers – none of which are being questioned as specious. He's behind Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, who each have more than 25 million followers, but far ahead of Romney.
Risk Versus Reward
One of the ideas behind buying Twitter followers is that adding fake followers could lead to more "real" followers. In my recent bump up in followers, some artificial, some authentic, most of the new "real" followers had a legitimate reason to link up with my account. Perhaps they were new co-workers, or people I interviewed for a story or someone that discovered me through an article I wrote. A few could have found me through an improved search ranking, (since I did suddenly have more followers) but that didn't have as big of an impact as I had hoped it would.
Still, to the average person my additional followers had the potential to make me look more legitimate.
"If you are purchasing legitimate people there could be some value there," said Harris. "Is that going to impress other people? Probably. There is a percentage of the population that would say I need to jump on this."
However, the risks are more obvious than the rewards. Whenever a person adds an incredible amount of followers in a short time it will stick out to many social media users, most of whom are savvy about unexpected changes in account status. People who followed me immediately contacted me, wondering how I had added so many followers overnight, and I hadn't added near the 130,000 or so that Romney had.
I'm also not a public figure like Romney, Gingrich and Grillo with many detractors who are constantly trying to find fault in my actions. These opponents are sure to keep a close eye on their counterparts’ social media activities.
"Adding followers can help your brand perception," said Qualman. "If you are a big brand, it's not worth the risk. If you are just starting out, it may give you the momentum you need."
Of course, it’s not clear that the average person, out of the Beltway and social media or PR circles, really cares much about how big your Twitter account is?
"You have to consider the only people that care are in the digital marketing echo chamber,” said Falls. “Mainstream people probably didn't see the (Romney) story or care. It doesn't really enter the mindset of the mainstream voter. They probably never encountered the notion he has X followers or encountered the story he bought X followers to make him look better."
If the average person doesn't care, it might make sense for an aspiring politician to buy large amounts of followers, especially if it is cheaper than television, radio and print advertisements. Whatever boost in human followers he or she gets out of this is another promotional channel, however small, to tap. But doing so does seem to go against the spirit of what social media is all about, namely, engaging with humans.
If anything, I have to say that seeing my swelled number of Twitter followers gives me a bit of a prideful jolt. Yes, buying Twitter followers serves as an ego boost -- something no politician has been known to turn down.