/ Twitter / 5 min read

Millions of fake followers are being removed in this Twitter purge

On Wednesday, July 11, Twitter announced the planned removal of the accounts they locked from follower counts on profiles globally.

Locked accounts are those prevented from interacting with the platform. They lock accounts when they suspect unusual behaviour like tweeting a large volume of unsolicited replies.

"If we detect sudden changes in account behaviour, we may lock the account and contact the owner to confirm they still have control of it...until we confirm that everything is ok with the account, we lock it..."
- Vijaya Gadde, Twitter's Legal, Policy and Trust & Safety Lead

Also, if a large number of accounts block an account after mentioning them, Twitter may decide to lock the account.

Spotting a bot account is easier than an account deserving a temporary lock. This is because, for the latter, they are usually created by real people who have probably been hacked. While for the former, they usually exhibit spammy behaviour from the beginning. Twitter's algorithm can spot spam accounts and shut them down. But, for accounts to be locked they usually need feedback from the account holder to (dis)prove their hypothesis.

With the progress Twitter has made in the fight against malicious automation, reflecting it seems next. In May 2018, their systems challenged 9.9 million accounts per week for being spammy.

In line with the release of Europe's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) Twitter has had to clamp down on underage users.

These crackdown on suspicious accounts and "underaged" users have led to a reduction in Twitter's total growth numbers.

Removing locked accounts from followers count profiles do not affect engagement metrics. Because already the locked accounts are prevented from "engaging" with the Twitter-sphere. Examples of engagement metrics include; DAU, MAU and engagement ratio.

DAU means Daily Active Users; MAU means Monthly Active Users

Also, they don't include month-old locked accounts in their engagement reporting to investors.

Note: As at Q1 2018, Twitter had a total MAU of 336million.

Yet, the service will experience a 6% drop in the total number of followers across profiles.

"Celebrities, athletes, pundits and politicians have millions of fake followers" - The New York Times (NYT)

In January, The NYT released an exposé titled the Follower Factory, where instant followers are minted.

A person's social media following has long been used to signal how influential that person is. For instance, the following of Cristiano Ronaldo gives an insight into his influence. He has a combined followers count of about 200million. As a result, he is a favourite advert candidate for consumer products like sportswear.

As at the time of this post, Cristiano Ronaldo had 120.9m on Facebook, 135.1m followers on Instagram, and 73.4m on Twitter. This makes him one of the most followed accounts on all the platforms (1st, 3rd and 8th respectively).

As these platforms grew, spam accounts also grew thereby diluting the ratio of real to fake followers. Spam accounts have grown to a point where they need to be curbed.

In 2014, we saw an Instagram rapture. And this year, it is the turn of Twitter users.

Ronaldo's Twitter following was slashed by about 150,000 followers which is a mere 0.2% drop from his June 2018 figure. Celebrity Katy Perry, who is regarded as the most followed Twitter account, took a much bigger hit, with a 2.7% decline in follower count from 110m.

Likewise, politicians like President Donald Trump and Obama experienced such sharp cuts. According to USAToday, President Trump who had 53.4m followers before the slash now has just 53.1m which is a 0.56% drop. Likewise, Obama was reported to have "bid farewell to more than 2 million", "dropping to 101 million on Thursday from 104 million the day before".

Accounts of Twitter and its CEO, Jack Dorsey was also not spared, as they both lost 12% and 5.4% respectively.

Kathy Ireland, an American model turned entrepreneur recorded a whopping 77% decrease to just 286K followers.

Indeed, "Celebrities...and politicians have millions of fake followers", with or without their consent.

Are fake followers solicited or not?

The presence of fake followers can be solicited (purchased) or unsolicited. The unsolicited fake followers are routine from bots making the rounds listening on keywords. It's unavoidable and that's why in this Twitter purge, the company states that the average account will see a decrease of about 4 followers or less.

Enough of high follower counts with low impressions

I once worked for a startup with about 6K Twitter followers. "Wow, that's impressive!, for a startup that is a little over a year old", I thought to myself.

Being the new handler, I realised that we were getting barely 40 impressions per tweet and our engagement rates were next to nothing. This riddled me, because, on my personal account of about 1k followers, I was doing more impressions and engagement rates than them.

So, what did I do?, I carried out a Twitter Audit, which revealed that 96% of our followers were fake.

When I queried a co-founder of the startup about why there were so many fakes, he said something like:

"I do not know, we once gave (or paid) someone external to manage it...".

Then, it dawned on me that the person might have just bought fake followers as a way of meeting the KPI set by the co-founders. With little time to mourn, I initiated an edutainment campaign that aimed at getting "real" people interested in our brand. As a result, our impression and engagement numbers went up. More "real" people started following us, but still, there was no way for me to remove the fake followers from our account.

I requested twitter verification on behalf of the company because I understood that being verified rids you of spam. Sadly, our request was declined. But, with the most recent purge, Twitter is democratising the profile review bit of verification. Thereby making it accessible to anyone.

In the Follower Factory, the NYT uncovered a company - Devumi, that has sold hundreds of fake followers and engagement to users around the world. They made a fortune as a result.

There are several reasons people buy followers including for "business" and status purposes.

Many "Influencers" with no real basis for influence bought followers in other to get advertising gigs.

Karen North, a social media professor puts it more eloquently here:

“There are so many reasons it’s important to have large followings, depending on who you are. For people who...want to develop a reputation as an influencer...then Twitter...YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, all those, allow them to...develop the credibility of being the person people are listening to" -  Karen North, USC Social Media Professor

In summary, here is my rule of thumb:

If they are not verified and their accounts look suspicious with a high following, then they probably gamed the system.
Millions of fake followers are being removed in this Twitter purge
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