Faking It on Social Media


By Samuel Greengard

It's apparent by now that the Internet brings out both the best and the worst of humanity. It has allowed people to connect with long lost friends, but it also has enabled a new generation of sometimes-sophisticated scams. The Internet has helped charities save numerous lives, but it also has made it easier for terrorists to build bombs.

So it should come as no surprise that the unabashed joy of tweeting to millions of adoring fans and customers is fading in the realization that many of these fans simply don't exist. This fact first gained major attention last fall, when Mitt Romney's Twitter following jumped by about 100,000 in mere days.

The New York Times recently reported on this form of social media inflation. It cited evidence from two Italian researchers, Andrea Stroppa and Carlo De Micheli, that major brands and stars are using fake followers to inflate their numbers.

Among the accused are Pepsi, Mercedes-Benz, Louis Vuitton, Newt Gingrich and Sean "Diddy" Combs. Typically, a suspicious account displays a distinctive pattern: There's a spike in followers followed by a dip about a month later. The end goal is to boost a Klout or PeerIndex rating, which can translate into a higher popularity rating among the public and, in some cases, more money for endorsements and deals.

Forbes reports that fake followers are typically available for about $5 per thousand. And, oftentimes, by the time the fake accounts are deleted or disappear, legitimate accounts fill in the gap. In fact, scamming methods are becoming more sophisticated. Experts say that some cheaters are now pushing numbers up more steadily.

So far, Twitter hasn't demonstrated a great deal of interest in all the fakery—or squashing it. It's also not clear whether Facebook is doing anything about inflated "Like" numbers.

Fortunately, it's now possible to detect bogus followers. For example, Socialbakers has developed a tool that identifies probable fake accounts.

Cheaters take note: You may succeed in duping people and raking in a few more dollars over the short-term. However, today's technology will "out" you at some point. And, over the long-term, there's a high likelihood that all this fakery will be a colossal waste of time and money. What's more, there's a genuine risk of a backlash.

In the end, honesty and transparency always win out. It's the only surefire path to loyal customers and greater profitability.