Future Tense

Twitter’s Fake Follower Controversy Exposes Social Media’s Underlying Economies of Shame

Twitter bird calls for others to follow.
The birds are not what they seem.
FARBAI/thinkstock.com

Twitter is a machine designed to generate ugly feelings. Here everything is subject to quantification: the number of people who like the things you tweet, the number who share your words with their own followers, and, perhaps most of all, the number who follow you. If you spend too much time on the platform, those numbers quickly become an index of your own self-worth, and no matter how high they get, they will always be too small.

It’s little surprise, then, to learn that many of the site’s users have exaggerated their own prominence. Actors, models, businesspeople, athletes, adult entertainers, and others have all bought fake followers from a shadowy company known as Devumi, as the New York Times exhaustively demonstrated in a recent story. Though much of the Times’ reporting is new, we’ve long known that users artificially inflate their virtual fame. More surprising, however, are the ways those users respond to being called out.

Many of those identified in the Times story attempted to displace blame onto their subordinates. A representative of Kathy Ireland’s branding company, for example, told the paper that an employee had been suspended after purchasing hundreds of thousands of followers for Ireland without her consent. While that may be true, Ireland’s account has yet to prune its artificially inflated audience. Others, however, have confronted the allegations more directly and earnestly, among them Joe Concha. A writer for the Hill, Concha claims that he had purchased followers on the advice of a social media firm, and that he subsequently “deleted” many of the fake accounts.

Twitter board member Martha Lane Fox was similarly contrite in the story’s wake, writing that she would “never recommend” purchasing followers and claiming that the ensuing conversations had “ironically” introduced her to “some brilliant new people.” (A third tweet in the thread simply read “I.” Fox did not elaborate on the meaning of this brief message.)

One person caught by the New York Times put it bluntly:

“It’s fraud,” said James Cracknell, a British rower and Olympic gold medalist who bought 50,000 followers from Devumi. “People who judge by how many likes or how many followers, it’s not a healthy thing.”

Others admitted to the Times that they were similarly embarrassed by their choices, too, but they were far from the norm. The more common response seems to be silence or outright denial, with some taking extreme steps. Television personality Paul Hollywood deleted his account after the Times reached out. As of Monday morning, Rich Karlgaard—a journalist named in the story—seemed to have deactivated his account, while 60 Minutes correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi had set hers to private. (It’s unclear whether either did so in direct response to the Times’ journalism.)

Others, meanwhile, carried on as if nothing had happened. John Leguizamo offered a steady stream of political tweets, alloyed with the occasional bit of self-promotion, much as he would have on any other weekend. Though he has 761,000 followers, few of his quips were retweeted more than 20 times. Busy businessman Michael Dell, another figure named in the article, left his 1.23 million followers in suspense, declining to tweet anything at all over the weekend.

Leguizamo, Dell, and their ilk will likely maintain their nonchalant attitudes unless something aggressively forces their hands. That’s because their conduct lays bare a basic truth of Twitter: On a site where popularity is a question of statistics, fake fame may be less embarrassing than real obscurity.

Few were franker about this fact than Micah Uetricht, associate editor for the leftist magazine Jacobin—one of the few publications identified as a Devumi customer. Uetricht explained that Jacobin’s staff had falsely inflated its reach in the hopes of impressing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when they were attempting to convince the athlete and commentator to write for them.

As Uetricht noted in a subsequent tweet, the ploy worked, and Abdul-Jabbar did end up writing for them.

Here, it’s hard to say who was really in the wrong: Should we fault Jacobin’s editor’s for cooking the books or Abdul-Jabbar’s agent for accepting the illusion? One way or another, that high-profile get may have helped the publication build its real audience in the years that followed.

You could argue, then, that buying followers may not be all that different from fiddling with Instagram filters. Both offer us ways of making our lives look fuller and richer than we already are. If there’s shame here, it’s less about getting caught than it about the underlying mechanics of social media itself. We are all less than we would like to be. Maybe it’s time to stop pretending otherwise.

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Jacob Brogan writes for Slate and hosts the podcast Working.