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Twitter's fake followers problem 

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Last month, the Twitter account of Sean Hannity of Fox News was “briefly compromised.” Visitors to his page were greeted with the message, “Sorry, that page doesn’t exist," but by the next morning the site was back up and running. Theories for this event ranged from a rogue Twitter employee to a conspiracy conducted by the “deep state.” When Hannity’s account was restored he had about 300,000 fewer followers.

Turns out those lost followers weren't actual people, they were bots. And mysterious disappearance of the page wasn't a part of a conspiracy. 

In the past few weeks, over a million prominent Twitter accounts, including entertainers, athletes and media personalities have been deleted in what some are calling as "bot purge." Why were the accounts deleted? They were part of an operation conducted by Twitter in response to political pressure brought on senators Jerry Moran from Kansas and Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut, chairman and ranking member of the subcommittee of consumer protection, respectively, who requested the Federal Trade Commission investigate the practice of using fake followers and what they termed “deceptive and unfair marketing practices.”

According to a study by the University of Southern California, and Indiana University, up to 48 million Twitter users (15%) are actually bots, meaning that they are automated accounts designed to act like real people, but are actually run by computers.

During the "bot purge," singer Clay Aiken, actor John Leguizanno, actress Lisa Rinna and former NFL player and Hall-of-Famer Ray Lewis — all clients of the same marketing company — lost thousands of followers during the Twitter purge.

At center of this controversy is one marketing company, Devumi. Devumi describes itself as a social media and marketing company, and sells followers for social media sites such as Twitter, YouTube, SoundCloud, etc. The company sells likes, retweets, followers, views and other engagement metrics to celebrities, businesses to anyone who wants to appear more popular on online platforms, and has made millions.

For celebrities, online influence is used to determine pay, bookings, endorsements, etc., and the numbers can easily make or break some people. For politicians, it helps them promote false influence by buying thousands of followers. Up to 92% of Newt Gingrich's  1.3 million followers were fake. As such, inflated metrics are a form of deception. Twitter does not require accounts to be human, and permits automated access and that makes it easier for companies like Devumi to manipulate the platform. Devumi’s fake accounts are termed amplification bots. which consist of promises of thousands more of followers, retweets and likes.

According to a recent New York Times article, China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Devumi for hundreds of thousands of followers and retweets on Twitter, an adviser to Ecuador president Lenín Moreno purchased tens of thousands of followers and retweets from Devumi during last year's Ecuadorian presidential campaign, and pundits and reporters alike have engaged in purchasing fake metrics. The Times itself purchased tens of thousands of fake accounts and analyzed them as part of the research, finding that the group was so “wildly disparate and geographically diverse” that it was impossible that all of them would be following the same account had they belonged to actual people.

Film critic Richard Roeper was suspended (then later reinstated) from his job at the Chicago Sun Times for buying thousands of fake Twitter followers. According to the Chicago Sun Times, "Roeper purchased about 50,000 followers on at least six separate occasions between July 2014 and July 2016. Three of those purchases were from Devumi; the other three purchases were from another company. In all, Roeper spent about $650 on the purchases out of his personal accounts."
There’s no policy at Chicago Sun Times for banning the purchase of fake Twitter followers, leading to Roeper being reinstated.

But there’s so much mistrust in politics and the media, the work of companies like Devumi, and the present lack of oversight to deal with misleading practices online, will only make regulation and enforcement all the more difficult to implement. Not only that, moral and ethical ambiguity creates a giant grey zone.

A large number of followers gives Twitter an incentive to not go too strong with the purge — higher engagement numbers is as good as currency for Twitter. It's safe to say things will get a little worse before it gets better — social media sites are still reeling from negative PR stemming from the 2016 presidential election. Until things get better, the truth can still be pulled out of the murky sea of data, but we have to work harder to fish it out.

Thomas Russell is a high school information technology teacher and retired Army Signal Corps soldier. He is the founder of SEMtech (Student Engagement and Mentoring in Technology) and an Advisory Board Member of Educating Children of Color. His hobbies include writing, photography and hiking. Contact Thomas via Russell’s Room on Facebook, or email at thruss09@gmail.com, and his photography at thomasholtrussell.zenfolio.com.

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