The New York Times piece titled The Follower Factory is as disturbing as it is enlightening. Copied identities are used to create realistic-looking Twitter followers which are then sold to anyone who is willing to pay to become internet famous.
Who is paying for Twitter followers?
The larger the count of followers someone has, the more important they look. People with many followers are known as influencers. Sometimes they are actors, athletes or someone who is already famous. Other times they are famous because of social media. Many promote products and turn that influence into cash. More followers mean more money. Others will use that influence as a voice for a political agenda.
Where do the followers come from?
The followers are from fake accounts. They might look real, but that is because they borrow the identity of real people. They take photos and other details from real people’s accounts which makes the fake account look authentic. Not all fake users have that much detail. They also create less realistic looking profiles just to increase the number of followers.
There aren’t millions of people controlling these fake profiles. They’re controlled by a computer program known as a bot. A bot can post on a given schedule or react to events. There are actually legitimate uses for these kinds of bots, such as Big Ben and SF QuakeBot. Other bots attempt to amplify influence by liking and retweeting posts.
Can anything be done?
Yes. The fake accounts and bots are against the Twitter terms of service. Twitter removes fake accounts when found. Mashable just posted about a bot purge. Twitter removed millions of fake accounts over the weekend. Unfortunately, the fake accounts are easier to create than to spot. It’s like a digital game of whack a mole and when they delete one fake account another pops up in its place.