The New York Times published an article over the weekend detailing records of various celebrities who it seemed had purchased fake followers on their social media accounts, mostly on Twitter. The Chicago Sun-Times even suspended their movie reviewer for it. At first you might be shocked at such a reaction: Why suspend—and potentially fire—someone for something as little as having a few fake followers?
It's not just as simple as having a few fake followers. In fact, it's a lot more complicated than you might think. The in-depth New York Times article focused on many aspects of the situation these celebrities and influencers find themselves. To help you and your company navigate through the potential pitfalls of fake followers, let's take a look at the angles involved.
At its simplest, buying followers, or similar activity, violates the terms of agreement of most social media platforms. Violating terms opens up your account or your company's account to being suspended or even deleted. And if that happens, it won't matter how many followers you had, you won't be getting your content out to anyone.
Social Media Identity Theft
There are bot accounts—fake accounts not run by a human, but some sort of computer program or robot—that might appear as how you might imagine: no profile picture; some obscure handle that uses a combo of numbers and letters no human could possibly rationalize; a timeline of random, unconnected retweets. But the New York Times article spent a significant portion talking about social media identity theft and fake accounts that have essentially mirrored a real account to make it look genuine: a profile picture of its human counterpart; a handle that's a letter or two off from the authentic handle; a bio that is the same or similar to the real bio. This can cause hardships for the real user who, in some sense, has had their identity stolen and makes it appear as if they have interest in things they might not enjoy or endorse in the slightest.
Reasons (Not) to Buy
There are many reasons an individual or company would want to buy followers. For influencers—who receive payment in exchange for promoting a brand or product across social media—an increase in followers can mean an increase in payment. The same can be said for motivational speakers. The number of followers they have acts like proof that their word or influence is important to people and should therefore be paid to promote your brand or speak exclusively for your event. For celebrities and politicians, the reasons might be similar—I have X amount of followers, so I should get this part or contract—or it could be a way of keeping up with the Joneses. Or it could be that they want to spread a message that they think can be amplified by bot-initiated retweets.
For companies, it could be as simple as thinking that having a lot of followers will bring more followers in. Tempting, but false. Neil Patel finds that using a regular method for building and attracting followers actually works better in the long run than just buying followers and expecting them to do the work for you.
False Advertising or Deception
With a lot of the reasons stated above, the person or company buying the fake followers is trying to deceive others—to buy a product, to hire them, to trust them—into thinking something that's not necessarily true. They might be a really good speaker or actor or what have you, but they're using means that aren't fully above board to convince someone that something is true.
Integrity Can't Be Bought
What all of this comes down to, ultimately, is integrity. Unknowingly having a few false accounts following you isn't detrimental to your integrity, the integrity of the company, or to your company's reputation. In fact, since the original New York Times article, people have been reporting a decrease in followers—potentially the deletion of numerous bot accounts across Twitter—and not just the celebrities on the original list.
But knowingly purchasing thousands of fake accounts to boost your, or your company's, social reputation in a (misguided) attempt to increase engagement and ultimately purchases like these are dishonest and can call your integrity into question. What happens when people find out a significant number of followers are fake? What happens when they feel liked to? Trust in you or your company will be harder to gain back than social media followers.
"Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching."* In this social media, Internet-is-always-on culture, even if you think no one is watching, they are. There are people just waiting to catch you or your company doing the wrong thing: buying followers or email lists, plagiarizing content, misusing company funds. Whatever it is, make the decision between convenient and right.
Fake Can't Deliver, So Be Authentic
Maybe to an influencer or celebrity, social media followers is all about numbers: the more they have, the more it seems like they can prove that what they sell—products, newspapers, their skills—is valuable. But for companies, followers don't always directly translate into dollars. Traditionally followers turn into website visitors, who turn into leads, who turn into customers. It can be a long journey, but for those who end up with happy customers, it's worth it.
If you or your company are buying fake accounts just to have a high number of followers, you're not looking at the bigger picture. As Neil Patel says in his article about fake followers, "The point is that fake followers don’t engage with your content." Real followers engage, click on articles, read your posts, want to learn more. Fake followers can retweet to their legion of bot followers, but who's really listening? No one. And the click-through-rates or leads from social numbers will show that.
Create real, relevant content that speaks to your audience. Educate them on your product or service, tell them why what you offer is their best option. Lead them down the path of purchase with engaging information and communication.
Don't be fooled by the notion that a greater number of followers equals a greater number of anything else, including revenue. Build up your contacts, leads, and customers in an authentic way, usually a fully formed strategy to target the audience that is most likely to find your company relevant.
* The quote is often attributed to C.S. Lewis, but there is some debate about the origin of this popular quote.