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In the world of social media, the number of followers you have matters. So does the number of likes you get for any social media update, or the number of times your tweet gets re-tweeted. And that has created a vast underground economy of companies offering to sell followers, likes and friends on demand – often just for pennies per follower.
The scale of the problem
The New York Times recently did a huge exposé on the shadowy business of fake social media accounts, and the problem is more extensive than you might think. It’s not just a few hucksters and social media carnival barkers who are buying up fake followers in order to self-inflate their perceived value to the social media world – it’s top athletes, politicians, famous tastemakers and supermodels. According to the New York Times, up to 15 percent of Twitter’s “active users” might actually be these fake bots. And Facebook may have as many as 60 million bots roaming around, fully in the paid service of top celebrities and influencers.
The reality is that the biggest enabler of these scam artists – the company Devumi – has more than 200,000 paying customers, including celebrities, TV stars, athletes and brands. These customers are willing to pay thousands of dollars in order to pad their social media accounts. After all, who’s really going to take you seriously if you don’t have 1 million followers and are trying to line up a major endorsement deal?
But wait, things get worse. It’s not just that companies like Devumi are auto-generating fake profiles of bots – it’s that they are literally stealing the profiles of existing users on Twitter and Facebook in order to construct fake alternative profiles. In one case, the Twitter identity of a 19-year-old girl was stolen in order to hawk all manner of products and services (including some that are related to pornography and other vices).
The influencer economy
What’s really eye opening, of course, is how much of an “open secret” the whole business of buying social media followers really is. Any digital marketer knows exactly where to go to buy followers. Celebrities and influencers know which company or agency to ask anytime they need a little “juice.” While some of the influencers tracked down by the New York Times feigned surprise or disgust at such an unsavory practice, others pretty much dismissed it with the age-old excuse, “Hey, everybody else is doing it.”
But, why, exactly, is everyone doing it? In some cases, it might be a case of vanity. Simply put, you just feel more popular, attractive and newsworthy if you have tens of thousands of followers (even if many of them are bots with no profile photos and garbled profile descriptions that make no sense). However, there is a deeper factor at work here, and that’s the rise of the Influencer Economy. The rule of the Influencer Economy is simple: the larger your social media following, the more influence you have. When you have perceived influence, people’s actions change – they are suddenly willing to hire your services, to sign you up for an endorsement deal, and buy your products. In short, it’s all about the Benjamins. Influence = money.
For marketers, of course, all this presents a huge moral and ethical conundrum. What do you do when a client demands that their social media following increase by a factor of 10 within a few months or your contract will be terminated? What do you do when clients start to shift their business to marketing agency rivals who “get results”? You can either play the social media influence game because “everybody else is doing it.” Or you can take a principled stand on the matter and do your small part to fix the fake social media problem once and for all.