Twitter's fake followers: Influence for sale

From Lady Gaga to Obama, paid tweets and inflated followings game online reputations and call the whole system into question

Mine is bigger than yours -- my Klout rating, that is. Yeah, it's pretty juvenile, but social media is turning into an adolescent measuring contest as the number of friends, followers, and tweets becomes a new digital status symbol. It shouldn't be a surprise then that the most popular measure of clout (and Klout) -- followers on Twitter -- is for sale. And it's not even that expensive.

A security company called Barracuda Labs conducted a study of this recently, saying it needed to protect clients from phishing and other Internet scams. 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. You can buy 2,000 retweets for just $5.

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Organizations are in fact buying fake followers, including both major candidates for the White House, numerous other politicians, and scads of celebrities. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, for example, had 673,002 followers on July 20. One day later, that number soared by 17 percent, or 117,000 new followers. On the other side of the partisan divide, President Barack Obama's campaign boasts that he has nearly 19 million followers. However, an analysis by StatusPeople, a social media management company based in London, shows that only 30 percent of them actually exist or have active accounts. To be fair, it's possible that spam bots are creating at least some of the fake accounts.

The implications are serious: Twitter has changed how politics is reported in the United States and has been a weapon used by pro-democracy advocates in countries like Egypt and Iran. It's also a tool used by businesses to stay in touch with customers. To its credit, Twitter has tried to stop the spread of fake accounts and the like, but cheaters and petty profiteers are still eroding its value as a communications tool.

How to fake your Twitter followers (not that you would)
To test whether sites advertising paid followers really deliver, Barracuda Labs set up three Twitter accounts and purchased 20,000 to 70,000 followers for each account. They delivered. Selling followers and tweets is becoming so common, it's part of the underground economy, Jason Ding, a researcher at Barracuda Labs wrote in a blog post.

Not that any of you would ever want to inflate your ego with fake followers and bogus retweets, but if a "friend" wanted to do so, here's where he or she could buy instant Klout. One example ad: "I will deliver 1,200 retweets plus 1,200 favorites and promote it to 430,000 followers within 12 hours for $5." Ironically, at some point such fake followers and fake retweets become like a snake swallowing its own tail, because the fake retweets will be sent to fake followers, who in turn send fake retweets to more fake followers. But we're not there yet.

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