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Twitter wars: Obama and Romney buying fake followers?

Published time: August 24, 2012 20:23
Edited time: August 25, 2012 00:23
Mitt Romney (L) and Barack Obama

Mitt Romney (L) and Barack Obama

While Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are neck in neck at the polls, another fight between the two presidential candidates has emerged — one that isn’t measured by votes but with retweets. Are politicians paying for their Twitter followers though?

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney made headlines with his Twitter account earlier this month after it was discovered that the presumptive GOP nominee for president magically accumulated more than 100,000 new social networking followers in only a single short weekend. Today, Romney’s 901,000-or so followers pale in comparison to President Obama’s nearly 19 million strong, but was the race to raking in an impressive online audience an easy one?

Representative for Mr. Romney’s campaign have denied that they have purchased followers for the governor, but not only do an array of websites exist that provide such a service for a pay-per-person fee, but the accounts that subscribe to the feeds of many of America’s political elites are by and large completely bogus.

A total made available on the website StatusPeople.com allows Twitter users to plug in the names of other accounts and see just how many of that person’s followers are actually legitimate. It turns out that of President Obama’s vast pool of followers, as many as 31 percent are deemed “fake” by the website. In comparison, only 16 percent of Romney’s followers place into the same category.

Fans of Obama and Romney that have accounts considered “inactive” by the website total to around 39 percent and 31 percent for each candidate, respectively.

Although neither candidate’s campaigns have admitted to purchasing phony followers, it is something that can indeed be easily accomplished. Will Mitchell, the founder of Clear Presence Media, tells the New York Times this week that he has purchased more than a million followers for his clients, whom he chose not to name, sometimes at a price of just a penny a piece.

“And it’s so cheap, too,” he says. In one case, according to Mitchell, he paid $2,500 to collect 250,000 new followers for a client.

Zac Moffatt, digital director for Romney's campaign, tells Newsweek that it isn’t the best investment, though.

"If winning were about having the most Twitter followers, Obama would get blown up by Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber," Moffatt says. "It's whether people are retweeting or sharing. That is what is of value to us."

In a report published earlier this month by Barracuda Labs, though, research scientist Jason Ding writes, "We believe most of these recent followers of Romney are not from a general Twitter population but most likely from a paid Twitter follower service.”

When Barracuda noticed that Romney's followers increased 17 percent during the weekend of July 21, they discovered that within weeks 10 percent of those accounts had been suspended, and 23 percent had never authored a single tweet.

Using the StatusPeople tool, 70 percent of President Obama’s millions of followers are identified as being either fake or inactive. That isn’t to say that it’s a trend apparent in only mainstream politics, though: reporter Josh Wolford has estimated using the tool that less than one-third of singer Lady Gaga’s Twitter followers are actually in good standing.