Autocrats, super-tweeps and Twitter’s overnight tribes

Why people who seek to use Twitter as a measure of popularity, legitimacy or credibility should begin by blocking their fake followers.

Rori Donaghy
28 August 2013

Twitter is regularly referred to as the tool that helped mobilise the masses in protest against autocrats during the Arab Awakening. Now, it seems the autocrats are fighting back on the social media site, attempting to use large numbers of followers to demonstrate their popularity and legitimacy.

The ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, recently celebrated gaining his 2 millionth follower. Gulf News lauded the achievement, describing Sheikh Mohamed as one of the world’s most followed leaders, and citing his discussion of humanitarian and charitable activities as the reason behind his popularity.

The question is: can we trust a large following on Twitter as a measure of popularity, legitimacy or credibility without checking whether a large number of followers equates to real people? If followers are seen by some as an endorsement of the account holder we need to consider and expose those who manipulate social media to influence thinking, for example, about a region undergoing dramatic change.

An Australian politician, Tony Abbott, hit the headlines earlier this year having being accused of buying followers on Twitter. It came after his account jumped from 157,000 to 198,000 in one evening. It is easy to see why a politician may seek to artificially boost his or her social media profile by making use of companies selling Twitter followers.

It is even easier to see why an unelected leader, such as Sheikh Mohamed, may seek to use social media as a way of proving his popularity, given that he never subjects his rule to the scrutiny of the population through elections. Status People, an online tool that claims to be able to calculate how many fake and inactive followers a Twitter account has, says that fewer than 50% of Sheikh Mohamed’s 2 million followers are ‘real’.

Sheikh Mohamed is not alone in being plagued by large numbers of fake followers: Status People say just 45% of David Cameron’s 400,000 followers and 36% of Cristina Fernandez’s 2 million followers are real. Another point that should raise suspicion is a large number of followers from a seemingly bizarre location. For example, Twtrland, a site that profiles Twitter accounts, has recently shown that 3.6% of Dubai’s Chief of Police’s 500,000 followers hail from the tiny country of Andorra. If true, this would mean 1 in 5 of Andorra’s 86,000 Catalan-speaking population is following the Arabic-tweeting Dhahi Khalfan.

Status People and Twtrland are the latest in a raft of online tools claiming to be able to analyse a Twitter following. Social Bakers and Twitter Audit provide similar services, allowing people to check whether a popular social media account is a credible one. A fake follower is defined by Social Bakers as being one that has a following to followers ratio of at least 50:1 or where 30% or more of all tweets include spam phrases. An inactive or abandoned account is defined as one that has posted fewer than 3 tweets or where the last tweet was posted more than 90 days ago.

The methodologies employed are restricted, with Social Bakers saying there is a 10-15% margin of error and Status People suggesting their tool is most effective for accounts with fewer than 100,000 followers. Yet, even with the limitations of these tools, there is cause for concern: Chris Atkins’ recent film, Celebs, Brands and Fake Fans, exposed the ‘click farms’ where poorly paid workers manipulate Facebook likes, YouTube views and Twitter followers for clients seeking a social media boost. Taken together, there is enough of a picture to doubt the authenticity of a large Twitter following.

It may be impossible to avoid attracting large numbers of fake followers for a popular Twitter account; however, it becomes a serious issue when people seek to use a large following as an indicator of popularity or legitimacy. The emergence of the ‘super-tweep’, a person famous for their use of Twitter, has given rise to a wave of seemingly credible commentators on a range of issues.

Sultan al-Qassemi, an Emirati commentator on Arab affairs, and a member of the ruling family of Sharjah, recently featured in Foreign Policy’s Twitterati: a list of the ‘who’s who of the Foreign Policy Twitterverse’. Al-Qassemi was invited this July to Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law as a Draper Hills Summer Fellow and is described by them as commanding ‘upwards of a quarter million Twitter followers’.

Of al-Qassemi’s 246,239 followers Status People say only 36% are real, while Twitter Audit puts the figure at 44%; this leaves al-Qassemi with between 88,650-108,000 ‘real followers’. Twtrland show al-Qassemi’s retweet statistics as being 1048 per 100 tweets. Comparatively, the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, who has 248,824 followers, receives 6610 retweets per 100 tweets. Now, perhaps Greenwald’s tweets are simply more appealing to his followers but, crucially, Twitter Audit says 82% of his followers are ‘real’.

Clearly, every account on Twitter can attract fake followers. The emergence of the ‘bot’, a computerised account, has led to a swarm of spam followers plaguing the vast proportion of users. Social Bakers’ guidance suggests that when an account possesses 50% or more fake followers then action should be taken. Twitter must develop a more effective way to identify and remove fake accounts. But they are not alone.

For those who seek to use Twitter as a measure of popularity, legitimacy or credibility there is only one answer: block the fake followers. Tools such as Followers Be Gone, Block Fakes and Social Bakers all provide services in ridding an account of fake followers. Another option is to contact Twitter and ask that they block all fake accounts.

The point here is that a large number of Twitter followers should never be used to plug a legitimacy vacuum, or to provide an influential career in the media or elsewhere solely on the grounds of a supposedly popular social media account.

As in the case of Tony Abbott, it is impossible to know whether someone has bought followers given that any individual can buy them for any account and it is plausible that a strategically astute individual could buy followers for an opponent with the aim of discrediting their Twitter account. Equally, it is impossible to determine if real followers are supporters or opponents given the absence of endorsement on Twitter. It is clear that a large following on Twitter cannot be used as a measure of popularity or credibility, which is only amplified when a significant number of followers are fake accounts.

Twitter will continue to be a vital tool for those seeking to challenge authoritarian rule in repressive states, providing a veil of anonymity for activists who fear reprisals. Yet, while dictators are increasingly able to use sophisticated software in removing the anonymity of social media accounts they will never be able to fully co-opt the site for their means. The evolving tools monitoring fake social media accounts ensure that it is possible to expose an authoritarian ruler’s crude attempts to use Twitter as a substitute for elections. For the super-tweeps who become famed commentators it is incumbent upon them to ensure that their account is rid of fake followers or risk facing persistent questions about their credibility

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