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Hillary Clinton Has More Than a Million Fake Twitter Followers. What Does It Mean?

Yahoo Tech

Hillary Clinton launches her presidential campaign in New York City in June. (Photo by Reuters)

Fake Twitter followers abound among the U.S. presidential candidates as they gear up for the election in 2016. And Hillary Clinton isn’t the only candidate with more than a million of them. GOP frontrunner Donald Trump also has well over a million fake followers. Other candidates have them, too, but not as many (in large part because they don’t have as many followers, period).

In fact, almost every person on Twitter has some fake followers. I have them, but since I have relatively few followers compared to real celebrities, I have fewer fake ones. Chances are you have fake followers, too.

As far as the election goes, present numbers show Clinton and Trump well ahead of the pack in both presidential polling and Twitter followers — the real and the fake kind. So if we were to consider the size of a candidate’s Twitter following as a kind of crude proxy for political popularity or electability, then questions about what it means to have a large number of fake Twitter followers become even more fascinating.

What makes a Twitter follower fake?

We found out how abundant fake Twitter users are thanks to a site called TwitterAudit, which analyzes Twitter accounts and then tells you how many of that account’s followers are real and how many are fake. TwitterAudit isn’t the only service that does this. There’s also the StatusPeople site; unlike TwitterAudit, StatusPeople will show you who some of those fake users are, how many it considers actually fake and how many are just inactive.

But what, exactly, is a fake follower?

Shaking hands, kissing babies, and amassing phony Twitter followers. (Data courtesy of TwitterAudit – Click here to see a larger version)

“Fake followers are a mix of inactive Twitter users (who signed up but never log on), completely fake users that are created for the sole purpose of following people, and spam bots that are programmatically set up to tweet ads and malicious content,” explained David Caplan, co-founder of TwitterAudit.

Clearly, the definition of a fake follower is open to interpretation. Some of the followers that these services consider fake are actually news collection services that harvest tweets and use them to find and publish news stories; when I tweet about this story after it’s posted, those services will pick up that tweet, and then may put this story on their pages, or include a link back to Yahoo Tech.

In other words, fake doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not real followers. It could mean that they’re just not individual users who are constantly following, responding, and adding other followers.

The obvious question, then, is: Where do those fake followers come from? As you might expect, there’s an app for that — more precisely, a website called Social Followers that promises to add thousands of new names to your list.

It certainly shouldn’t be assumed that any of today’s presidential campaigns would need to use a social media blasting service to gain followers that could be considered fakes. These types of accounts also have a propensity to show up on their own — not so much because they’re really fake, but because they’re lurkers who read Twitter feeds but don’t do a lot of tweeting on their own.

In addition, Caplan said that people with a large number of followers — more than a million — seem to have a higher percentage of followers his company considers fake.

“For large accounts (1 million+ followers), the percentage of real followers sometimes tends towards 50%,” Caplan said in an email. “This doesn’t necessarily mean the other 50% are fake. It’s more likely that many users are just inactive or use Twitter to occasionally read tweets. For large accounts, if the score is 60% (real followers) then I’d say that is a pretty good score.”

Are there downsides to having a lot of fake followers?

So should you (or a candidate for president of the United States) worry that a large portion of the “people” reading your tweets are a bunch of fakes? The answer there is a firm maybe.

Twitter spokesman Nick Pacilio points to Twitter’s spam policy, which specifically bans the practice of getting fake followers. “Using or promoting third-party services or apps that claim to get you more followers (such as follower trains, sites promising ‘more followers fast’ or any other site that offers to automatically add followers to your account).”

Meaning that, if you take advantage of a service that adds fake followers, Twitter could cancel your account. But when asked if this rule is actually enforced, Twitter did not respond.

The issue of fake Twitter followers otherwise seems pretty harmless. It boosts your ego to have people think you have a lot of followers, and it might boost your Klout score, but does it cause any harm?

“Fake followers aren’t inherently bad,” Caplan said, “they are just a dishonest form of using social media. They can be leveraged to inflate someone’s reputation. People will most likely follow someone who already has many followers, so buying followers is a way to boost your follower count in the future. Fake followers can also be used to commit fraud in the sense that you can inflate the value of your Twitter account for advertising purposes without creating any real value.”

The fraud that Caplan mentions refers to celebrities who get paid for things such as product mentions made from their Twitter accounts. So for those select few that can get paid to tweet, fake followers can be deceptive. Otherwise, they’re probably harmless. And since those fake followers probably aren’t registered voters, they don’t really matter to the candidates, either.

Wayne Rash is senior columnist for eWEEK and a longtime writer about aviation and space. He has been a pilot since 1970. He can be reached at wayne@rash.org.