I’ve long been a student of a phenomenon I call “manufactured credibility,” in which the Internet makes it easy to fake popularity and approval for everything from books and consumer products to politicians. One of my early writings on the subject was inspired by the saga of a guy who made good money running a business that supplied planted reviews to sites like Amazon.com. You paid a fee to his fairly large and sophisticated operation, and his people would flood the big consumer websites with highly convincing, authentic-sounding positive reviews for your book.
What intrigues me about manufactured credibility is how easy it is. I’m not talking about informal penny-ante stuff, like your friends jumping on YouTube to write enthusiastic recommendations for your latest video. I mean industrial-scale efforts to manipulate opinion by using the Internet as a tool to artificially inflate popularity. There’s not much cost involved, and it’s very difficult to see through the illusion. And it’s an interesting comment on mass psychology that people are powerfully swayed by the sense that a large number of “regular folks” approve of something. At the very least, they find illusory popularity intriguing, and want to know what all the fuss is about.
The crudest, and perhaps most prevalent, example of manufactured credibility is the fake Twitter follower. It’s easy to create hundreds of thousands of phony Twitter accounts and sign them up as followers for a politician or media figure. I noticed an update on this practice from Politico, which finds it to be nearly ubiquitous among politicians… but no prizes for guessing who the undisputed king of Twitter astroturf is.
A black market for fake followers — commonly known as “bots” — has infiltrated nearly every politically linked account from the White House to Congress to the 2016 campaign trail, undermining the reliability for one of the most commonly cited metrics of success in the Twittersphere.
According to a POLITICO-driven analysis, heavy hitters with Twitter handles attracting the highest rates of fake followers include the president’s political account @BarackObama (46.8 percent), Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s @DWStweets (35.1 percent), the official handle @SenJohnMcCain (23.6 percent) and likely White House aspirants @HillaryClinton (21.9 percent) and @ChrisChristie (18.9 percent).
More rank-and-file members also have been hit by the bot boom, from South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson (18.8 percent) to Rep. John Fleming (28.3 percent), a Louisiana Republican who won back-to-back House GOP social media contests in 2010 and 2011.
Politico goes on to offer a variety of theories for the provenance of these fake followers – from the obvious charge that they’re manufactured by a politician’s operatives to inflate his or her popularity, through the possibility that some of them are coming from allied groups and supporters without the politician’s knowledge, and even the suggestion that fake followers might be false-flag operations launched by opponents to discredit a candidate’s genuine popularity (a claim made by the campaign of Mitt Romney, who appears to be the only person who ever took serious media heat for having fake followers.) For what it’s worth, I’ve long had the sense that many individual politicians are genuinely unaware of Twitter astroturfing done in their names, and don’t really get how Twitter works at all (their accounts are often managed by staffers) but I’m not sure how much innocence I’m prepared to assume on the part of tech-savvy campaign operatives.
There’s not much that can be done about it, because fake followers are cheap (twenty bucks for a thousand followers, at one site Politico found) and, like email spam, provided by overseas sweatshops beyond the reach of American regulators. The bot programs used to create these fake followers are growing quite sophisticated, as manufacturers learn how to defeat the algorithms used to suss out phony accounts by spotting a variety of telltale signs (the account only follows one person, nobody follows it, the account generates no Tweets, etc.)
It’s a concern for Twitter, which understandably doesn’t like anything that calls its credibility into question. But it’s also remarkable how commonly Twitter followings are still cited in news coverage as a metric of popularity, even though everyone knows those numbers are fudged by double-digit percentages. It’s almost like an arms race now – you’ve got to pile some baloney on top of your authentic following, or the other campaigns will make hay about how “unpopular” you are, compared to the mighty online presence of their guy.