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By now you’ve probably heard about the major “fake follower” exposé that the New York Times published. Celebrities, sports stars, supermodels, politicians and social media influencers have been buying up fake followers on social media, usually for just pennies per follower. And now it turns out that many top journalists in the mainstream media have been guilty of the same practice.
Fake followers for fake journalists
One of the biggest names embarrassed in the “fake follower” scandal is legendary film critic Richard Roeper (who hosted “At the Movies” with Roger Ebert). His official Twitter follower count was once north of 200,000, but it turns out that he purchased 50,000 followers on at least 6 different occasions. Things got so bad that he had to step down for a while from his media critic job at the Chicago Sun-Times. When he returned, he issued a formal apology and started a brand new Twitter handle, which has a much more believable number of followers: 5,000 and counting.
And Roeper was far from the only star caught up in the scandal. A top CNN contributor, Hilary Rosen, may have inflated her follower count by 500,000. Congratulations, the Fake News Network is now the Fake Follower Network. A top media columnist for The Hill admitted to “juicing” his account by 5,000 followers. A reporter for E! News might have done the same. And these are just the people that we know about!
The search for credibility in an online world
The problem, quite simply, is that these journalists have been caught up in the whole reputation game. Followers = credibility, and the more followers you have, the higher is your reputation. And here’s where things get dicey is because it’s now possible to parlay that reputation into sponsorships, endorsement, paid speaking gigs and more.
In short, “juicing” your follower account on social media is the same as “juicing” your body on steroids in professional sports. It’s a way of getting an unfair edge on the competition in the pursuit of a bigger paycheck. Social media influencers and journalists who try to juice their Twitter followers are no better than the professional athlete juicing in the locker room and then going out on the field and hitting home run after home run before signing a lucrative new contract.
Do media organizations need a new policy to cover fake followers?
What’s surprising in all this, of course, is how many media companies have no policy in place whatsoever to cover this scenario. It was only after the New York Times article broke that people began to ask themselves, “Hey, shouldn’t we have some kind of policy in place to prevent this in the first place?”
After all, if media organizations really want the paying public to buy into the myth that they “fair and balanced” or “the most trusted name in news,” is it really possible if the people reporting the stories and writing the articles are as duplicitous and double-dealing as the people they are covering?
Everyone plays the reputation game
Of course, it’s easy to throw rocks at glass houses. When it comes to social media, we’re all just a little bit guilty of putting up a deceptive front. We might not go to the same extreme lengths as buying tens of thousands of followers, but who hasn’t engaged in few shenanigans like “follow-for-follow” or begging for upvotes, likes and retweets in the search for popularity?
It’s no longer enough just to post something on social media and be done with it. We need to see the “social proof” that we matter and that our words, images and videos are going viral. Which is why the buying of fake followers is so short-sighted: yes, it might look impressive if a CNN talking head has 500,000 followers – but if nobody is clicking, liking or re-tweeting, does it really matter?