Did you know that only 29 percent of Lady Gaga’s 30 million followers on Twitter actually exist? Let me just repeat that: 29 percent. That’s less than a third. The overwhelming majority are unreal, inert, mere cyphers shackled together in a collective expression of inanimate inanity. Isn’t that extraordinary?
Well, no, actually. Earlier this year, StatusPeople introduced a web tool called the Fake Follower Check that claims to ascertain how many fake followers you and your friends have. Lady Gaga, it turns out, is far from unusual: a writer at Forbes used the application to determine that 70 percent of Justin Bieber's 27 million followers are fake, as are 88 percent of Britney Spears', and 74 percent of Oprah Winfrey's.
Now, clearly, there are many plausible explanations why an account might be ‘fake’. Vast quantities of automated spam permeate the site’s chasmic recesses, and many once-genuine profiles are simply inactive. Recently, however, a more insidious manifestation of this fakery has come to light: namely, the phenomenon of ‘followers for sale’.
The term ‘follower’ has always had faintly servile connotations, the notion of ‘following’ denoting a partial or even total abnegation of the self with respect to another. Such a concept is, in this case, followed to its logical extreme. A security company called Barracuda Labs conducted a study recently, citing the need to protect clients from phishing and other Internet scams. In doing so, 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: 2,000 retweets retail at just $5.
US Comedian Dan Nainan is happy to explain what he considers to be the sound marketing rationale behind his own purchase of ‘a small city’s worth’ of new followers at the slap-down price of $424.15. ‘There’s a tremendous cachet associated with having a large number,’ said Nainan, 31, adding later, 'When people see that you have that many followers, they’re like: ‘Oh, my goodness, this guy is popular. I might want to book him.’' It’s tempting to react with either a laugh or a shrug to such practises: after all, paying to artificially augment one’s digital appendage for the sake of a bit of publicity, while a little duplicitous, is hardly criminal. Nonetheless, there is something deeply unsettling about the flagrant commercialization of that which is inherently 'social', seemingly undermining the central role of social media as a tool for increased access, influence and unmediated communication.
Media consensus labels Twitter emblematic of the technological winds of change that are sweeping through journalism, politics, business and the world of public relations. Look at the Arab Spring, many say: here is the Internet acting as a revolutionary democratizing tool whereby propaganda and governmental falsity may be circumvented by the empowered citizen, armed with nothing more than a camera phone. And so it is; yet, in the modern age, to be popular is to be famous, and to be famous is to wield influence and power. The ability, therefore, to artificially create an illusion of influence through an unreal army of tacit acquiescence is to introduce the age-old precedent that power is exercised by those with the deepest pockets.
It is fun to reflect on the suitably post-modern aspect of such virtual non-existence: fake Twitter accounts as the ultimate crystallization of an inert pointlessness, the sacrifice of individuality on the alter of consumerism and commoditization. It’d make rather a good academic thesis. The trouble is, such accounts really are going to the highest bidder, making it genuinely difficult to spot what’s real and what’s not, which campaign’s got big money behind it and which hasn’t. Despite some social media sites like Facebook vowing to seek out and destroy their fake accounts to preserve 'true engagement', vendors like Samir from Singapore say it is unlikely that they will stop selling fake followers in the near future. As he said in a recent interview: ‘I'm making too much money.’