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April 4, 2014

The Inside Scoop on Fake Followers on Twitter

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Lately, there has been much talk (and some controversy) around the influx of fake followers on certain Twitter accounts. A lot of people automatically default to the notion that when someone gets hit with a large number of followers, particularly all on one day, the individual purchased those followers.

Given that no one really knows the truth behind a follower spike, we wanted to do some investigative research to see how you can spot fake followers, what to do about it if your account gets hit and why you should never consider purchasing fake followers for your own account.

How to Spot an Account with Fake Followers

There are a few helpful tools to tell whether someone has authentic followers or not. They are:

Twitter Counter: this will show you any Twitter users growth chart over the last three months (if you have a premium account you can dig further back). What you want to look for on this tool are unusual spikes of activity.

For example, here is an account that shows a very unusual spike of over 3,000 new followers on one specific day. This is most definitely an influx of fake accounts.

Screenshot 2014-04-04 10.55.57

To put this into perspective, let’s look at Gary Zukav‘s Twitter account. Who is Gary Zukav? He recently appeared on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday and is the author of The Seat of the Soul. Appearing on Oprah is a great way to spike your follower count, right? It is but not in the way one might think.

Screenshot 2014-04-04 15.27.37

As you can see, Gary’s Twitter account rose leading up to, and after, his Super Soul Sunday appearance but even appearing on Oprah’s network didn’t give him a massive spike.

This example helps illustrate there is little else, other than the intentional purchase of followers, that will spike your account in such a large and unusual way. There are other possibilities (which we explore below) but it’s rare. Let us first look at another helpful tool.

TwitterAudit.com: this tool will show you how many of a user’s followers are fake. If you take the same user that you’ve checked out in Twitter Counter, that showed a large and unusual spike, and you pass them through this tool, you may be surprised to find that the amount of their increase is equal to (or close to) the number of fake followers they have.

Screenshot 2014-04-04 11.03.38

Just to show you what a full audit looks like, here is my own report from TwitterAudit.com:

Screenshot 2014-04-04 11.05.50

As you can see, I have approximately 2,948 followers that Twitter Audit deems as “fake” with an overall score of about 90%. This is pretty normal, especially for someone like me who has been on Twitter for ages.

Now, just to be certain that those Twitter followers are indeed “fake”, I like to pass them through another favourite tool of mine.

ManageFlitter.com: this is my favourite tool for managing my Twitter account. Manage Flitter allows you to see lots of different “views” of your followers (and who you’re following) so you can unfollow accounts that you no longer wish to follow.

For example, I’ll often unfollow everyone who isn’t following me back (unless they are a large corporate account, tech blog or celeb that doesn’t follow many people back) because for me personally, Twitter is about the engagement. People won’t engage with me if they don’t see my Tweets so it often doesn’t make sense for me to follow them.

The other thing this tool is helpful for is finding inactive accounts – people who haven’t Tweeted in the last three months. I don’t bulk unfollow though, I pull up the list and unfollow anyone who isn’t familiar to me or that I haven’t engaged with in some way.

The area that is helpful for this particular post is the Fake (Spam) section. You can check it on both sides – who is fake that you are following and who is fake that is following you. And, you can force them to unfollow you (using the block functionality).

As you can see, Twitter Audit said I had about 2,500 fake followers whereas Manage Flitter identifies 982 fake accounts. I’d still manually audit these, and ensure that none of my friends were accidentally added to the list, before forcing them to unfollow me.

Screenshot 2014-04-04 15.34.55

Are All Spikes Due to Purchased Followers?

No. Here’s a prime example: I have been quiet on Twitter for the past three months or so. I’ve been Tweeting at a minimal pace, not really following anyone new, etc. Just sort of… existing in the space. My follower count was consistently dropping (this happens often when you are not engaged – this is why engagement and relationship building is so important and, I had also went from following almost 30,000 people to following 5,000!).

This week, I decided to make Twitter a priority again. I’ve been sharing much more content, engaging and chatting with others, following some relevant accounts, etc. Just making myself known in the space again and making myself available.

Let’s look at the difference it’s made:

Screenshot 2014-04-04 11.18.37

The difference between my screenshot and the one I posted above is that my Twitter followers “spike” is 43 people and the other account is 3,000~ people. A “spike” of 43 people, due to focus being placed back on the social media account, is not a fake follower spike but rather just a natural spike due to the circumstances I described earlier.

It’s important to note that when you are viewing people’s accounts, using a tool like Twitter Audit, that not all “spikes” are the same. Look at the number associated with the spike to see if it looks unnatural. Getting 100 followers in a day (and sometimes even more – especially if you’re mentioned in a big tech blog, for example) is not unusual but thousands is. Like I mentioned earlier, even appearing on Oprah doesn’t result in a massive spike of thousands of users.

What to Do When You Have Fake Followers

If you run your own account through the auditing tools above, and you find out that you have fake followers, it’s a good idea to clean your account. Fake followers, if you have a lot of them, can really hurt your credibility. As Sam Lowe mentioned in his article on Weidert.com, this is especially harmful for those of you engaged in B2B relationships or if you work with brands.

Add a recurring calendar item to go in and clean your account out at least once per month. Delete fake followers and block your fake following. Having legitimate followers is much better than having your numbers padded with fake ones. Brands are realizing more and more that numbers matter less and engagement and reach matters more.

So, Where are the Fake Followers Coming From?

One theory that I’ve heard over the past few weeks is that an individual will purchase fake followers and have them follow someone else’s account – perhaps a competitor or someone that they don’t particularly like. Given this notion, I spent nearly an hour scouring the Internet for stories of people being maliciously hit with fake followers and I’ve found… one story. Which, from my perspective, appears to be mostly a PR ploy anyhow.

According to The Daily Dot, a company named Swenzy maliciously purchased them over 75,000 followers in an effort to get The Daily Dot’s Twitter account suspended. Although, the suspension of the account never happened. Instead, they did a blog post about it and talked about how Swenzy was just trying to do what they always do – get more exposure for their off-the-wall marketing tactics. So, while that did work (the exposure bit) the fake follower “attack” doesn’t really seem to have hurt The Daily Dot’s account.

Another theory I’ve heard is that your fake followers will increase when you are put on a “spam list.” This is an interesting theory as I’ve never heard of a Twitter spam list before. I think the idea is that you are then spammed with a whole bunch of new followers, that are all fake accounts, likely in an effort to get your account disabled. This theory doesn’t feel legitimate to me. Remember, I scoured the Internet and found one story of such an attack.

When I dug deep into the web for information on said “lists”, I couldn’t find much. On the Bot or Not website, they discuss the types of malicious attacks that can sometimes happen and why it may be beneficial for a spam account, especially one engaged in phishing or link baiting, to get access to your account. However, there was still no talk about who benefits when a user suddenly gets hit with tons of fake followers.

My opinion is that if there is a huge spike of followers on a specific day, and it’s unexplained by anything else – i.e.: major media coverage (but remember the Oprah example people!) then they are likely purchased accounts.

Friends Don’t Let Friends Buy Fake Followers

Purchasing followers on Twitter is sort of like paying off your friends. It’s really, really tacky. Instead of buying followers, work toward earning them through legitimate methods – i.e.: staying engaged, providing valuable content, having conversations and putting yourself out there in other ways.

Aside from the tackiness, it also puts your account at risk. Huge spikes in followers and / or unfollowers can get your account suspended or deleted. The risk involved is often not worth it – particularly if you are working hard to grow and build your following.

Lastly, if you’re not worried about looking tacky or having your account deleted, consider this. The Next Web wrote a great article on fake Twitter followers and in the article they talked about how Barracuda Networks did a security test on these fake follower accounts. It turns out that those fake followers were way more likely to engage in phishing scams, hacking and other activities that put the person’s real followers at risk.

To close, avoid purchasing followers to inflate your social media status and clean your own account regularly. And, pass the word on to your fellow Twitter users so they don’t hurt their credibility and integrity in the Twittersphere.

  • LifeInPleasantville

    Pretty much the best thing I’ve read in a while Erin. Spot on.

    • http://www.bsetc.com Erin Blaskie

      Thank you! :)

  • kidsumers

    Very well researched and written!

    • http://www.bsetc.com Erin Blaskie

      Thank you!

  • Natalie Rea

    Credibility and integrity – so important when tweeps are looking to work with brands, be that directly or with an agency partner. Thanks for this, Erin. Extremely well thought-out and written.

    • http://www.bsetc.com Erin Blaskie

      Thanks Natalie :)

  • holliepollard

    Love this, I treat my twitter followers like good, and my account that is 5 years old has thankfully never been attacked …my follower spikes happen when hosting an event, getting mentioned in the same article as Oprah and when I have appeared in other media, like you said it can happen but you can stay on top of it, I have for years now.

    • http://www.bsetc.com Erin Blaskie

      Yes, everything requires management and keeping an eye on it is smart for business! :)

  • http://www.chasingthedonkey.com/ Mrs Chasing the Donkey

    Sounds like a great tool to think about when your Twitter account gets large. Thanks.

  • Rebecca S

    Really helpful piece – thank you!

    • http://www.bsetc.com Erin Blaskie

      Thanks Becky! xo

  • alex durrell

    Fantastic post, thanks for putting it out there!

    • http://www.bsetc.com Erin Blaskie

      Thanks Alex! xo

  • Sandy

    Thanks so much, Erin. Such great examples and helpful links! I immediately did an audit on my Twitter account and was happy to see I have 93% legit followers (phew!).

    • http://www.bsetc.com Erin Blaskie

      Thanks Sandy! :)

  • Karen Wilson

    I bought twitter followers about a year ago as an experiment. I was doing some research for a blog post (http://wellmanwilson.com/blog/case-study-the-facts-about-buying-twitter-followers.html) with the objective to not let my friends and clients buy followers. :) So, I had that huge spike, then I forced them all (and then some) to unfollow. What was interesting was that before I had a chance to force unfollow, twitter deleted most of the accounts on day, so my follower count dropped by about 2000, then the very next day I had an influx of another 2000+ followers. (I ended up with about 1000-1500 more followers than I had selected to buy. The service I used also guaranteed them for a year. I worried that forcing the accounts to unfollow might lead the service to add them back again, but that didn’t happen. The most compelling reason I found not to buy followers was that it’s against Twitter’s terms of service. I’m a rule follower and I don’t like risking my accounts I’ve built for so long on a practice that has no real value.

    Great post! I haven’t used these tools yet, so I’ll be checking them out.

    • http://www.bsetc.com Erin Blaskie

      Thanks so much Karen :)

  • esl67

    I know this is an old article, but I just found it after a search to find out why three social media accounts for one brand I handle suddently got an influx of hundreds (thousands on FB) of fake followers. We have not used one of the services to buy followers, so I cannot figure out what happened. I’m wondering if there is a quick way to get rid of them all. This is a new brand, and we REALLY don’t need this kind of knock on our credibility, especially becuase we have a tie with Habitat for Humanity ReStores!! Any thoughts??