Insights and Thoughts on Fake Twitter Followers

Fake Mercedes in ChinaA fair while ago I did a test on one of my affiliate Twitter accounts where I made the dumb decision to bulk buy a chunk of followers. The question on is it ethical and if it was the right thing to do is a more complicated question that does not have a perfect answer in a fast moving area such as Twitter.

This post is not about what services or platforms people use to buy or sell fans but more so about how you can identify if your social media consultant or agency is pulling the wool over your eyes and cutting corners to reach your follower targets.

I feel that if you are paying someone to organically grow your Twitter follower base and they are cutting corners by buying fake followers or paying people to follow your account without disclosing this to you as part of a strategy then something is wrong and should be rectified asap! Just like the fake blue Mercedes Truck shown in the picture to the left be honest on your Twitter tactics used with clients if you are using Bulk/Fake fans as part of your overall social media strategy.

Why is buying Followers not cut & dry?
There are several high profile social media figures, celebrities and marketing agencies that are well know to be buying fans to grow their audience numbers and amplify their reach. There are a lot of reasons such as social proof or to encourage herd behaviour that leads to more organic/natural followers of your account the old “fake it till you make it” mentality is often at play in social media.

There is also not a clear line between buying with Twitter Ads official platform as some of those people that click on your ads are guaranteed to be any more engaged that fans attained by unofficial channels.

If you are using a service that will offer you a guaranteed 1000, 10,000 or 100,000 followers in a short period of time you can pretty much guarantee that these will be fake accounts and bots but platforms setup to encourage following may result in slightly higher quality fans. There are also a number of social behaviours such as #OperationFollow or #TeamFollowBack that can also be questionable ways of growing your audience as most people who use this eventually use bulk unfollow tools to shift their follower to following ratio to make it look like they are better than they are.

How are people influencing Twitter numbers/engagement?

  • Guaranteed Follows
  • Follow back circles
  • ReTweets
  • Favourite Tweets
  • Added to Public Lists

What Characteristics do fake followers have?

I have included a poor account that StatusPeople Faker report picked out that was following one of my affiliate accounts that has previously “purchased” followers.  You can see that some of the obvious traits the account has includes:

  • no avatar image
  • no full name
  • no location of account specified
  • no profile description
  • no profile URL
  • very low following to followers ratio
  • no tweets
  • default cover image
  • default twitter background
  • following random accounts
  • following accounts with no common theme/language
  • the account was only created recently
  • they often haven’t been connected to Klout, TrustCloud or Kred platforms

Fake Follower

Please remember that while there are a number of smaller factors that while easy to influence in the short term over a long period of time they can also be signals that something might not be right with the accounts followers or they are partly automated.

  • Do they only ever RT certain hashtags?
  • Do they followback and unfollow fairly systematically
  • They never engage in conversation regularly with other accounts
  • They never engage in conversation with multiple accounts
  • Do they only tweet self promotional links
  • Do they send DM spam if you follow them back
  • They don’t speak the same language (no tweets in your language)
  • They are inactive and don’t tweet but still follow new accounts
  • They follow have a low number of accounts following them back

How can you identify fake fans of your account?

One of the best solutions is to use Twitter analytics but the downside is that it only lists the top handful of your top 9 followers your followers also follow.

  1. Look at geographic location – As you can see from the screenshots below the location of followers is heavily skewed towards eastern Europe with 44% from Ukraine, 11% from Belarus, and 12% from Russia.  As you can see from the Twitter analytics screenshot below a majority of the fake accounts seemed to be proportionally higher in eastern Europe for this particular account but this can also be linked to the provider you used.  Some of the higher priced services allow you the skew your request of followers to a particular country so this is not always perfect but in an ideal account a majority of your followers should be from either your business location or your targeted geography.
  2. Look at interests & top interests – You can see on the left side of the screenshot below what are your followers interests.  These are clearly warning signs for this account as having followers interested in “cosmetic surgery” “weight loss” or “face care” are most likely linked to spam and questionable affiliate products which is not even close to what this accounts main audience is.  An interesting interest is Chess but I have to say it’s certainly a unique interest, but the key factor to look at is how common these interests are with this accounts followers.
  3. Look at who your followers also follow – This might upset one or two folk mentioned as I suspect with such a very high percentage of similar following that many of these accounts used the same service to spike their following numbers.  I find it very hard to believe that accounts so different can have such a similar bunch of followers. If the 9 accounts listed had a close online relationship such as same industry or company then it would explain the data but this does not appear to be the case.  I’m not saying all the accounts listed below have fake followers but more than a few have far too much in common.
Twitter  Follower Interests, Locations and Followers

Twitter Follower Interests, Locations and Followers

How can you identify fake fans of any account?

There are a handful of services that allow you to check your account by connecting with your Twitter account to see how you perform.  One platform I’ve been using for a while is Status People’s Fakers report that gives you the following snapshot top level snapshot for Fake/Inactive/Good followers, I ran this on the affiliate account that had previously purchased bulk fans and it didn’t turn out too bad.

Fakers Twitter Score

If I compare those stats against my main account @DavidIwanow with the same report shown below, you can see it flags just 3% of accounts as fake which is not too bad.  But you can see the difference in stats between the two accounts, one purchased a bulk fans and my main account didn’t.

David Iwanow Twitter Score

The downside to the free version of Faker Scores is that it only allows you to do 3 searches so if you are planning on doing a detailed analysis you might want to consider their paid product.  I also ran another account in a similar vertical to my affiliate account that I’ve seen promoted prominently on several “buy follower” sites as a “premium/vip” member but found that Faker Scores actually scored the account as having 49% good fans and only 4% are fake fans.  This is the downside to some of these tools is that careful use of unnatural follower growth can be masked if you spend more and stay clear of bulk follower services.

But another product that I have just starting playing around with as part of the research into this post was Twitter Audit.  The benefit of Twitter Audit is that unlike the free version of Faker Scores once you login you can run multiple Twitter audits and it will provide different insights but also store your past twitter audits and include a time stamp so you can track how things have changed. You can see below the dashboard report of this accounts top 9 accounts that have followers in common and how many fake fans they potentially have according to Twitter Audit. Some of the accounts have a massive skew of fake followers that have been acquired by inorganic means.

Twitter Account Audit

Who Buys Bulk/Fake Twitter Fans?

There is almost no vertical or industry that I’ve have not seen fake/bulk fans being purchase with several celebrities such as Lady Gaga and even President Obama have suspect followers according to a 2012 NYTimes article. As pointed out in the NYTimes article if you have a public account you are not required to approve followers so it’s also easy to bulk purchase fans for an account that you don’t own or manage just as it is to do it for yourself. Similar to negative SEO it’s very easy to do a follower blast to a competitor and discredit them and they will just have to wait until those new followers accounts unfollow or are shutdown.

I’ve had clients who have seen a massive spike in new Twitter followers increase by thousands in days but it’s more common to use fake likes on Facebook as that can mean their account is flagged and can be suspended.  But a lot of these new Twitter followers start to unfollow fairly quickly and the account returns back to a slightly higher previous follower number.

I don’t see that Twitter is currently proactively shutting down the big bulk/fake services but this will certainly happen soon if Twitter wants to increase the value proposition of it’s Twitter Ad platform for growing your fanbase. The problem for Twitter currently is that the cost per follower on Twitter can range from around $0.09 to $0.75 depending on the targeting options and user location so being able to buy tens of thousands of fans for less than a penny each does create an interesting moral dilemma for social media marketers.

Final Thoughts on Bulk/Fake Fans?

I think there is always a market for buying influence and since people still judge number of followers as a success metric there will always be a benefit in inflating your ego/audience by doing it.  Considering platforms like Fiverr have tasks offering 1,000 fans for $5 and while Twitter’s self service advertising platform is not available in all regions there will continue to be a demand for scalable ways of growing your social audiences.

I guess it’s up to brands and marketers on if you want to flip the coin and buy bulk/fake fans to inflate your audience size and hope it doesn’t impact your credibility in the long term. Just like Google never used to really penalise bad SEO they changed this over the past 2 years with Penguin & Panda could Twitter do the same?

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4 comments

  1. Firstly fantastic post David. As with regards to your question on “Could Twitter do the same?”

    I am struggling to get ideas as to how Twitter could take action against this. Maybe they could block accounts (which they are doing)but unlike Google, Twitter is a different entity altogether.

    Maybe fake twitterers tweets wouldn’t show up in Twitter’s internal search, that’s an action that could be taken but I don’t think this is something that Twitter has on high priority.

    There needs to be a change in mentality first in social media agencies where engagement metrics or conversions determine the success of your campaigns rather than just the no of followers or likes.

    Unless that stops, its tough to see the situation changing.

    • David says:

      Thanks Collin, I’m glad you enjoyed it as it took a while to write up.

      I think it’s easy enough for Twitter to do, they can check via login IP address, email address used to create account and using big data look for matches between accounts.

      I do think that internal searches will be the first place that Twitter starts to demote accounts that don’t have a certain “trust” score. I really think it will take the enforcement of penalties before these social media agencies change their mentality but also for clients to invest more in their social media agencies budgets so they can do more creative campaigns than just “get us likes”.

      The big problem I see is that there is not a certain set of metrics that can be used for all social platforms but that’s a whole different post :)

  2. Peter Mead says:

    Building a true following with no purchased followers is hard work. I made a commitment to myself never to by followers for my own twitter profile.

    I agree there is a perception that occurs when people get say over 1,000 followers or even 100,000 or more. The follows seem to come more easily.

    Personally I am happy to follow people with not many followers if they are tweet quality!

    Thanks for your insights David.

    • David says:

      Thanks Peter, yes a huge investment in time is needed if you want to grow any social media channel organically.

      The critical mass or tipping point is a hard number to put a finger on but having a large audience can entice people to follow you, but the unfollow rate can be fairly high unless there is relevance and engagement.

      I’m also terrible on social channels as I don’t really follow that many people back as I just don’t like too many posts/shares in my stream. The funny thing is that I tweet and share a lot so sometimes feel bad for my followers.