According to IT security company Barracuda Networks, more than one in five of Hillary Clinton's Twitter followers – 21.9 percent, to be precise – are as fake as those Nigerian princes who want to send you millions of dollars. With a total of over 1.4 million followers, that's a ghost army more than 306,600 strong – 3,000 more than the entire population of Tampa, Florida. If that's not bad enough, Barracuda calls an additional 12.1 percent of Hillary's followers "questionable."
But @HillaryClinton isn't the worst offender.
Nearly one in four John McCain followers – 23.6 percent – aren't living, breathing, flesh-and-blood humans, to say nothing of being registered voters, either.
Nor are more than 35 percent of Democratic National Committee mouthpiece Debbie Wasserman Schultz's.
But the worst fake follower totals of all come from Barack Obama's accounts. Almost half the followers – 46.8 percent, plus 16.6 percent questionable – at @BarackObama, operated by Organizing for Action, are fake, as are 31 percent of @WhiteHouse's, with another 16.8 percent questionable.
So when "[t]he White House boasted in an August 2012 email that it had 'reached 3,000,000 followers!' and also sent out a note in December celebrating the addition of nearly 1 million more new followers over the past year," they were claiming 1,240,000 to 1,912,000 followers who simply didn't exist.
Crossing party lines
As the Wall Street Journal reported last November, creating fake Twitter followers is by no means an exclusively Demorcratic phenomenon, or even an exclusively political one.
[M]illions of fake accounts on Twitter...simulate Twitter users: they tweet; retweet, or forward, other tweets; send and reply to messages; and follow and unfollow other Twitter accounts, among other actions.
Fake accounts are thriving on Twitter and are used to make celebrities and trending topics appear more popular than they are. There is also a robust black market for buying such accounts...
Sometimes campaign operatives buy robot accounts to make their candidates' numbers look good. At other times, Politico notes, they buy them to make opponents' numbers look fishy.
It could be someone spending a couple of dollars — $20 on one site offers 1,000 fake followers added in two to three days — to load up an opponent’s Twitter account in the hope it sprouts as a negative news story.
That's what Mitt Romney aides claimed in 2012 when media started questioning unusual spikes in Twitter followers – 115,000 more on a single day in July, 2012. "I think there are times that the other side does it to get you caught,' said Zac Moffatt, who was running Romney’s digital campaign at the time. "There’s no way that this is just happening randomly."
Time for a new scorecard?
"For Twitter users," says Politico, "follower size has been one of the earliest and easiest ways to measure and define success." The earliest and easiest, sure, but far from the most accurate.
Even though robotic followers are against Twitter's rules, those rules are apparently as well enforced as United States laws against illegal immigration. So instead of counting questionable numbers, how can advertisers – political or business – determine whether all the time, money and effort they spend on Twitter messaging is worth it?
JD Chang, founder of political analytics company TrendPo, says it's not the number of followers that counts, but rather what they're doing; are they replying and retweeting instead of just passively receiving?
But as the Wall Street Journal noted, bot accounts already "tweet; retweet, or forward, other tweets; send and reply to messages; and follow and unfollow other Twitter accounts, among other actions." What's more, says Politico,
Twitter experts note that the bots’ human creators — often working from Eastern Europe and Asia — have been programming accounts to follow public figures like politicians and celebrities (this means you[,] @justinbieber) in an attempt to look more real and evade the Twitter police trying to shut down the accounts.
Chang doesn't "think it’s a gigantic problem that’s going to take down Facebook and Twitter, but it’s a problem that they have to combat and figure out."
While they're doing that, don't throw tons of time, effort and money into Twitter marketing unless and until you can be sure you're getting something real – from real humans – to show for it.