Lies, statistics and Twitter

The glamorous world of social media is, in fact, crowded by non-human elements posing with a human profile

In a market economy, anything should be available in the market—at a price of course – the price is to be determined by market forces like demand and supply. Supply, in turn, is a function of the price which again depends on demand. And, where there is demand market forces create the supply. Sounds confusing? Not if one takes a simple but oft used product—Twitter for instance.
The success of a Twitter account depends on the number of followers the account can attract. The more the number, the higher is the value of such an account. Assume for instance that you are a reviewer of mobile phones and you have your own social media outlets which your devoted readers follow. In other words, you are an influencer who can encourage a reader to buy a phone. When a mobile phone company spots your talent, it will try to win you over to review its product. In a marketplace, all exchanges have a value. Since your review will attract a big number of followers, a following you have created painstakingly, the market rule expects you to charge a fee for your review. It is a different matter altogether if your endorsement of a product varies directly with the lucre that comes with the product. In fact, in the context of the market economy, such a quid-pro-quo (leveraging in other words) is not frowned upon at all. In the market, you, the phone reviewer, are actually selling your special skill, along with the attendant followers, for a product seeking attention.
The fee earned by many such bloggers who write on a product, tweet their articles and also post the blog on their Facebook page is substantial. Many aspiring bloggers send marketing mails to potential agencies to use their services. Certain agencies bag business due to the set of bloggers and social media influencers they are tied up with. Social media has created a new opportunity for the much-followed enterprising ones.
The ability to market services by a social media influencer depends primarily on the number of followers one could attract. And, in a market economy, there is a market for the followers as well. In a recent article titled, "The Follower Factory", the New York Times reported on the inside of the social media market. "Everyone wants to be popular online. Some even pay for it," reported the New York Times. There are studies on how many of the millions of followers are actual human beings and how many are computer generated. In March 2017, the University of South Carolina in a research report estimated that about 15 per cent of followers on Twitter are fake. Researchers at USC used more than one thousand features to identify bot accounts on Twitter, in categories including friends, tweet content and sentiment, and time between tweets. Using that framework, researchers wrote and CNBC reported that "our estimates suggest that between 9 per cent and 15 per cent of active Twitter accounts are bots." According to the University's study, at least 48 million out of Twitter's 319 million users (estimated in March 2017) are 'bots'. The revelation is not extremely shocking since Twitter itself had accepted the existence of 'bots' masquerading as humans in the Twitter world. The only disturbing element is the number—the University's estimate is 20 million more than what Twitter revealed.
To have a quick ballpark check on the veracity of such estimates on the existence of bots, all one needs to do is to check the followers of some much-followed Indians. Our Prime Minister Narendra Modi has 39.9 million followers. Just click on the list of followers and the first three which came on the screen are @Vicky_KumarBJP, @TalasilaHari and @bhhhmhmq2843. None of them has sent a single tweet and all of them joined the social media platform in February 2018 only. To reverify, one may access the handle again. This time there will be different names on the front and all of them, in my search, ended up as new entrants who joined the platform only in February. Naturally, they only follow, have no followers and have never sent or can send any tweet.
Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi has 5.7 million followers. The search revealed that the first few are @Mohan09065720, @JalamSi54918127 and @Rishabh34459583. All three joined the platform in February and have never tweeted. Shah Rukh Khan is another Indian with a huge following – 33 million. Some followers are @NasimSh84986746, @Shubham55844085, @hemphillcarola2 et al. They all joined Twitter in February and never tweeted. If such kind of followers of the illustrious does not make one suspicious—one must be extremely gullible.
The New York Times report, referred above, concluded that celebrities, athletes, pundits and politicians have millions of fake followers. As our cursory check revealed, this is not unique to the US only. The follower list of the three much followed prominent personalities in India gives the impression that a substantial portion of such followers are fakes. The NY Times reported, "While Twitter and other platforms prohibit buying followers, Devumi and dozens of other sites openly sell them." Devumi is a social media marketing company. Its website says, "ACCELERATE YOUR SOCIAL GROWTH – Quickly gain followers, viewers, likes & more with our blend of marketing tactics."
The NY Times reported that it reviewed business and court records showing that "Devumi has more than 200,000 customers, including reality television stars, professional athletes, comedians, TED speakers, pastors and models. In most cases, the records show, they purchased their own followers. In others, their employees, agents, public relations companies, family members or friends did the buying. For just pennies each — sometimes even less — Devumi offers Twitter followers, views on YouTube, plays on SoundCloud, the music-hosting site, and endorsements on LinkedIn, the professional-networking site."
Since the Indian media has less time for taking pains to investigate and report, most adopt the shortcut of reporting faithfully the record number of followers for one celebrity or the other. For enterprising companies like Devumi, India is an attractive market. In fact, the news report mentioned that Devumi had a flourishing market outside USA. Even an editor at the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua bought from Devumi followers and retweets.
The thumb rule for the ordinary person is—do not get excited by the huge number of followers and retweets of a prominent person – be he a dear leader or a popular actor. And for the serious media, the lesson would be—please do not report on trends on Twitter, since the same is generated by tech-savvy marketeers. Let us all go back to the days of plain, unvarnished, simple non-tech lies.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)
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