The Rise of Fake Accounts
Have you ever looked at some popular social media accounts and wondered how they have so many followers? After toiling away on your own social media posts in an attempt to increase followers and engagement do you sit and wonder how do they do it? Sure, they may be more famous than you, have name or brand recognition. Those are possible reasons. However, it could be something else. Perhaps many of those millions of adoring followers were purchased for mere pennies.
Whether out of ego, greed, or pressure, many of those followers come as easy as typing in your credit card number. While the practice is not fair to those who are trying to build a social media presence organically, it can be far worse for people who have their real social media identity stolen.
The list of those who have purchased followers and social media engagement from companies is long. They can range from those industries you might suspect like entertainers or so-called social media influencers to those you might not- journalists and even an economist. Moreover, marketing and public relations agencies are buying followers on behalf of their clients and even themselves. Fake accounts it seems, are a lucrative business.
The booming economy of online influence
Online celebrities or pseudo-celebrities are selling products and services. Social Media Influencer is apparently an actual job title now where people are earning a living. Today, having a mass audience or the illusion of one can be monetized.
Social media influence has upended the advertising industry and created a new status marker: how many followers, likes, and "friends" you have. Some in the entertainment industry and entrepreneurs use virtual status as real-life currency. The number of followers they have on social media can affect how much money they make: who hires them, the amount paid for a booking engagement or endorsements. Even how potential customers perceive their business or products.
The pressure and expectation to keep the social media follower numbers growing are immense. When organic growth measures fail or perceived to be taking too long, there are other ways to go about achieving follower growth success. Many people buy bots because they feel their careers depend on it and afraid of the ramifications if they are unable to increase social media followers enough to satisfy employers. These inflated follower counts due to fraudulent purchased accounts give both the public and the brands unrealistic expectations of what a social media following should look like and have further exacerbated the problem.
According to CNET, there are 330 million user accounts on Twitter. Some estimates report that 48 million of Twitter's active users (15%) are not real people. In a 2017 NY Times article, Facebook reported that 60 million accounts were automated accounts. YouTube and Instagram are also not immune from the fraudulent account phenomenon.
Fake accounts are also stealing the names, picture and personal information of social media users to create some of these accounts- even minors. Twitter does have an official rule against impersonation but has not yet done a good job of policing accounts that are open from being impostors. In fact, Twitter does not require the individual sign up under a real name. One real Twitter account can be transformed into hundreds of different bots with just minimal changes to the profile. Fake accounts help sway advertising audiences, defraud businesses and ruin reputations. Many of these purchased accounts of real identities are posting out spam, pornography or other things the real person would not want to be associated. Fraudulent posts with real names can have consequences when a potential employer finds the fake account and believes it to be of the actual candidate.
While Twitter and other social media companies do prohibit buying followers, companies are openly selling them. Social media companies whose market value corresponds to the number of people using the service- are left to make their own rules on detection and elimination. Just like the people purchasing followers the social media companies themselves have an incentive to not go after these bots too aggressively.
On YouTube where advertisers now spend billions on sponsorship deals with stars whose earnings increase with more followers, views and likes there is little incentive to curb the practice. A purchaser usually earns back the money spent on fake followers plus some because they can earn more from advertisers when their follower count rises. Until the ROI drops for both the social media account holders and the social media companies little will change.
The Erosion of Influence
In a world where it takes just a credit card number to increase that social media following exponentially, should we trust these "influencers"? Conventional thought has been that, the higher, the follower count or the more retweets, the more important the person behind the post- the more authoritative they are believed to be. As a result, the posting gets more attention, and the account then followed and retweeted more.
Fraudulent accounts are diluting the real effectiveness of social media advertising. While true that many followers, likes, and retweets may get your business in front of more people- 50,000 bot followers cannot make a purchase. Bot followers do not increase authentic engagement on social media.
If a large number of people know that the majority of your followers are fake- that erodes trust. We cannot believe these brands.
Terri Jones Cherry- Freelance writer, I love creating, traveling and being a mom. I'm incredibly inquisitive and always want to know why.