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Twitter's battle with spammers is well-documented, and not surprisingly, one of the tools that makes Twitter spam possible is the fake account.

While the exact number of fake accounts is hard to accurately estimate, there's little doubt they exist, and most likely in big numbers.

Fake followers fit for a President

Just how big? Earlier this month, security firm Barracuda Networks released a study looking at the issue. The study revealed an ecosystem of vendors dealing in fake followers. On average, for $18 per day, these vendors can offer blocks of 1,000 fake followers. And they can do it at scale: according to Barracuda Networks, some of the vendors have armies of up to 150,000 fake Twitter accounts at their disposal.

Apparently you don't have to look hard for evidence of these armies being put to use in the real-world. The firm, for instance, suggested that U.S. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, overeager supporters or a savvy opponent trying to make him look bad may have engaged in the purchase of fake followers as his follower count jumped an amazing 17% in a single day last month.

Barack Obama apparently has a problem of his own: according to a tool run by London-based StatusPeople called Fake Follower Check, 70% of the Twitter users following the Twitter account of the current President of the United States may be fake. That would equate to more than 13m fake accounts.

Fake, or quiet: does it really matter?

So is there an epidemic of fake Twitter accounts that everyone invested in the Twitter ecosystem -- businesses and brands included -- should be concerned about? Not everyone is buying that notion.

BuzzFeed's John Herrman points out that not every legitimate user participates on Twitter in the same way:

Twitter defines active accounts based on logins, not frequency of tweets (apps like StatusPeople's can't see logins). Twitter has just north of 140m "active" users that log in at least once a month. Of those 140m, about 40% only read tweets. Tweet-shy accounts, [Twitter spokesperson Carolyn Penner] said, "generally follow and engage with a lot of accounts" — a trait that StatusPeople's tool takes as a sign of fakeness. Throw in the fact that many of the largest accounts are on the Suggested User List, which helps skew their bases toward read-only users, and Obama's "70% fake" figure starts to make a lot more sense.

This raises an interesting question: if we make the reasonable assumption that a substantial number of Twitter accounts that might mistakenly be considered fake because the individuals behind them are consumers of content rather than producers of content, is there a meaningful difference between real and fake?

For brands convinced that Twitter is a one-to-one communications platform built around conversations, is a shy account any more useful than a fake account? And if shy users, which potentially make up the majority of Twitter users, are, as Twitter says, prolific followers of "a lot of accounts," can brands really expect to stand out and reach them in meaningful ways?

The answers to these questions aren't entirely clear, but brands investing time and money in their Twitter presences would do well to consider them because, at the end of the day, while nobody is questioning whether Twitter is an important social platform (it is), what it is in practice may be very different than what many of us have been told it is.

Patricio Robles

Published 28 August, 2012 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2393 more posts from this author

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Fred Dean

Great post. It's a topic that seems to be talked about alot recently, especially as President Obama is said to have millions of fake twitter accounts, as well as people like Tory MP Mark Clarke.

about 4 years ago

Tom Howlett

Tom Howlett, Digital Marketing Executive at Koozai

Interesting debate. I suppose there can also be Twitter accounts created to represent companies, but due to other areas of focus the account has fallen by the wayside. I would guess there are quite a lot of these accounts due to the rise in social media.

about 4 years ago

Will Kennard

Will Kennard, Student/Marketing Assistant at University Of Derby Corporate

You can spot the fake ones a mile off if your follower base isn't too big. I usually find they disappear off my follower list if I don't follow them back within a couple of weeks.

For brands I could see this as being a big problem, but surely with thousands of fake followers there must come thousands of real followers? So it's still a problem but not in terms of engaging individuals.

Although I think it would be a problem if you had 13mil fake followers like they claim Obama has... but that figure seems too high to me.

about 4 years ago

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Paul Thewlis

The fake followers debate seems to be languishing in a users ability to influence their followers i.e. lots of fakes, nobody to influence and therefore how does Twitter become a valid commercial tool for brands.

My belief is the fake followers debate is centered in social proof - whereby businesses, brands, Presidential candidates can say "look at how great I am". High numbers equals attention, publicity and a populist trend (mentioned here and in the likes of the Daily Mail in recent days). If you know what you're doing you can leverage this with far more effect than the 10% of genuine users who might "buy" one of your tweets.

about 4 years ago

Andrew Tonks

Andrew Tonks, Senior SEO Account Manager at Red Blue Blur Ideas

I can see this becoming a real problem for Twitter in future if a large proportion of the accounts on the site are fakes - can you imagine if Twitter starts to get the reputation of the site with nothing but spam and fake user accounts.

about 4 years ago

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Lee Marriott, Ecommerce Manager at 5th Floor The Tower

I think that if brands are promoting their Twitter profile to their customers, the level of engagement is going to be far greater. Some companies are aggressively trying 'up' their follower count for vanity which will inevitably result in unengaged 'silent' followers.

about 4 years ago

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Alexandra Gaiger, Digital Marketing Architect at ThoughtShift Ltd

I think a more accurate indication of fake and spam accounts is an assessment of the tweets. I always 'report as spam' anyone who tweets @lottafizz t.co/hdfihb especially when I look at their profile and every tweet is like this @ different users. Quiet followers are harmless.

about 4 years ago

Lin Wong

Lin Wong, Group Digital Manager at Fusion Lifestyle

Fake or quiet? Are these not 2 separate questions. A quiet follower does not make for a fake follower. The follower has actively chosen to "listen" to a brand and be a consumer who may well engage and interact with the brand on other channels - digital or not.

Fake is not genuine, a spammer who should be treated very differently to a quiet follower who has actively chosen to follow.

about 4 years ago

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David Quaud

Maybe they're just brands trying to build a broadcast network based on selling to you, like you are?

about 4 years ago

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Emily Smeaton

I absolutely agree with Lin Wong. I fully expect the majority of my business' followers to be pretty much silent. It is logical that engagement only comes from a few very active users. I still consider my silent followers to be a valuable, friendly audience / community. There are many accounts I follow without wanting to engage, especially authorities such as figureheads or institutions. We shouldn't class those who choose never to use their voice on twitter as in any way equivalent to fake accounts. As Lin said, the quiet ones are still actively listening, and may well engage on other channels.

about 4 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Lin,

By definition, a quiet follower is not a fake follower. I'm not arguing that. But for all practical purposes, it's worth considering that this may not make much of a difference.

If, as Twitter admits, quiet followers "generally follow and engage with a lot of accounts," there are logical reasons to believe they're harder to reach and capture the attention of.

A message that doesn't reach the target is a message that doesn't reach the target, irrespective of whether the target was a real person or not.

almost 4 years ago

Lin Wong

Lin Wong, Group Digital Manager at Fusion Lifestyle

Patricio,

Agree with your view that a message that doesn't reach the target is just that. But if followers do not respond on the platform that the message was broadcast on, has the message been lost on them? I think you make the assumption that it has. Does that make them less valuable? What about retweets, quotes? What if engagement with the brand is increased overall? Should Twitter be recognised as a contributing factor? My answer would be yes.

Interesting debate and it does really come down to how brands set their KPIs against Twitter.

almost 4 years ago

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Mark

It think fake followers are pretty inoffensive, but so not cool when the president use it to fake klout.... just dishonest.

over 3 years ago

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