Recently (Sept 24th 2016) BBC’s Click technology programme lifted the lid on some practices on Twitter for increasing your message reach and engagement on the social media platform.
The use of “fake followers run by political campaigns to amplify certain topics” is claimed to be a tactic being currently used by both the major political parties in the run-up to the US Presidential Elections.
While we could just think that these bots are purely a US issue, Professor Phil Howard (Oxford Internet Institute), who is interviewed on the BBC Click programme, also claims that bots were active during the UK’s EU Referendum and other political campaigns.
Twitter users for some time have complained about the platform’s hijacking from social into a broadcast and spam platform, recalling their early days tweeting experience of having conversations, being social and in some cases making real-life friends.
So what could the steady rise of armies of computer-generated bots mean for us and our future use of Twitter?
Among the number of new followers, I receive each day, I’ve noticed both a rise in the number of these fake follower and also an increasing sophistication of their accounts. Their account names and Twitter handles both bear a similarity, account images, and header photos come across as genuine and even the bio on these accounts are often well written.
The main give-aways on these accounts is either the complete lack of activity i.e. no tweets, or the retweeting of a hand-full of other accounts, with any “home-grown” tweets being famous quotes or random phrases. The sophistication of the account set-up usually contains “follow-bait” (or #followbait), an attractive photo of a real person, often stolen from Instagram, and enough of the right keywords in the bio to gain attention and be credible. Some I’ve seen are: “model” “entrepreneur” and “#socialmedia”. The last one is always potential follow bait for me, because of what I do.
As I’m writing this, a tweet I’m mentioned in from August has just been liked by “Diane Kerr”. Clicking on the account to find out more, the account name has suddenly been changed to “Ann”, has been locked down and is neither being followed or following anyone.
From my experience these fake followers will use three main tactics to get your attention as follow bait; follow you, like or retweet your tweets.
Under The Influence
While watching the BBC Click programme my immediate question was “Who else is using bots to amplify their tweets, are companies using these misleading tactics yet?”
As I stress to delegates on our courses at SocialB, we now live in an age where we believe complete strangers when making purchasing decisions. Reviews that we read on TripAdvisor, Amazon, Trust Pilot and others have more influence than advertising and the official brochures from companies on what we spend our money on.
While companies have been chastised for fake reviews, what if the latest must-have-toy for Christmas was surrounded by a mass of tweets from well-designed bot accounts to look like parents, for example, tweeting and retweeting parent type content and then suddenly retweeting content about the toy?
Would we be swayed in purchasing decisions if we couldn’t spot fake followers from the real tweeps?
University academic Quentin Langley (@brandjack) published one of my current favourite books “Brand Jack” in 2014 in which he analyses all the major fails by companies and organisations on social media, whether they’ve posted inappropriately or simply failed to handle customer complaints and the learnings from each scenario.
If you apply bots to this equation, what’s currently stopping firms using bots to amplify these complaints to discredit their rivals to a much wider audience?
Exposing The Fakes
Hopefully on an individual account-by-account basis, some of the insight above will help you work out fakes. But apart from analysing every account that follows you, how can you be sure who’s real?
Tools such as the Fake Followers App from Status People will analyse accounts, including your account, and work out who’s a bot and who’s real. I tried the app to analyse the account of a famous celebrity and discovered that according to the app they had around 1 million fake followers.
The Future Of Being Social On Twitter?
The noise on Twitter will increase because of bots, however, its users have so far found ways to cut through this and engage with real people through initiatives such as Twitter chats and mentions of specific (and real) users.
While this latest revelation provides some cause for concern for users, my real worry is for Twitter itself, which needs to both increase its number of real followers and the number of organisations willing to invest in its adverting services. Knowing that there are increasing numbers of fake followers, being used for campaigning purposes will do little to encourage this.