Some journalists and political pundits choose to buy artificial Twitter followers because being good at their job matters (and is incentivised) less than appearing like the Next Hot Thing.
I’ll admit it – in earlier years, in my weaker moments as a struggling political writer, I have idly thought about purchasing Twitter followers. But I have not and never will do so, and deplore those in journalism and politics who choose to sell out in this way.
The New York Times recently reported that a company called Devumi was offering dummy Twitter followers (either fabricated individuals or the fruits of identity theft) to those seeking to boost their social media stature for mere cents per follower. A whole swathe of celebrities were implicated (most of whom promptly rolled over and blamed their managers or PR people) but so too were a number of journalists at supposedly respectable outlets of the legacy media.
From the New York Times:
Genuine fame often translates into genuine social media influence, as fans follow and like their favorite movie stars, celebrity chefs and models. But shortcuts are also available: On sites like Social Envy and DIYLikes.com, it takes little more than a credit-card number to buy a huge following on almost any social media platform. Most of these sites offer what they describe as “active” or “organic” followers, never quite stating whether real people are behind them. Once purchased, the followers can be a powerful tool.
“You see a higher follower count, or a higher retweet count, and you assume this person is important, or this tweet was well received,” said Rand Fishkin, the founder of Moz, a company that makes search engine optimization software. “As a result, you might be more likely to amplify it, to share it or to follow that person.”
Twitter and Facebook can be similarly influenced. “Social platforms are trying to recommend stuff — and they say, ‘Is the stuff we are recommending popular?’” said Julian Tempelsman, the co-founder of Smyte, a security firm that helps companies combat online abuse, bots and fraud. “Follower counts are one of the factors social media platforms use.”
In some ways, this temptation is just one of many ways that using social media can warp our behaviours and motivations, as Jacob Brogan writes for Slate:
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.
Purchasing fake followers is thus rather grubby and slightly pathetic, but perhaps still fair game if you are a TV star looking to make a bit more money sending promotional tweets for haemorrhoid cream. But what if the person deceiving the public is somebody whose job it is to inform, educate and tell the truth? Surely then it becomes quite unambiguously wrong?
Well, lots of political journalists clearly don’t think so, according to NBC News:
Big media outlets have embraced Twitter as a distribution platform but still struggle with how reporters and editors use the social media service, particularly when they appear to be breaching journalism ethics.
This sizable gray area came into clearer focus this week, after a New York Times exposé revealed that more than a dozen news media figures had paid to artificially pump up the number of followers they have on Twitter.
Journalists and commentators, who presumably joined the platform to enhance their stature, instead found themselves grasping to explain why they had paid for counterfeit supporters. When contacted by NBC News, the journalists identified by The Times as having bought Twitter followers had a range of responses: Many ducked requests for comment, others blamed associates, while just one sounded chastened.
This practice doesn’t bother me so much when it takes place in other fields; if you’re a mediocre provincial stand-up comedian who wants to pretend you have an audience of half a million eager people hanging on your every word, so be it. Good luck to you. Same if you’re a B-list actress, a celebrity chef, an unremarkable footballer or a giver of lousy TED-style talks about personal development. I expect no realism from such people, and personalities from these fields who choose to over-inflate their popularity do no real harm.
Not so with journalists and political commentators, both those who parade around beneath the banner of the blue-tick Twitter verified logo and those scrambling for the Ultimate Recognition. Political Twitter is a nasty swamp of obnoxiousness at the best of times, but those of us who choose to lurk within it do so in the vague hope of coming across useful information or commentary once in awhile. And since nobody has time to vet every account that crosses one’s timeline to determine whether they deserve a follow or a clickthrough, a quick glance to see whether they have a decent (or at least a baseline) level of followers is a useful first line of due diligence.
Is this person for real? Well, their profile picture is the default egg icon and they have eleven followers. Hmm, probably not going to click that link or believe their sensational “report” about Theresa and Philip May using a ouija board in the Downing Street basement to seek inspiration and advice from Britain’s failed prime ministers of the past (plausible though that one actually sounds).
Buying Twitter followers makes a mockery of what the rest of us are trying to do, and undermines one of the few metrics left for gauging success (financial reward having long since ceased to be either a possibility or a useful indicator). I have a mere 2,500 followers on Twitter. However, unlike the cheaters, I earned my entire following by providing consistently useful or entertaining (intentionally or otherwise) content to my audience. Whether it is links to my blog, links to bloggers in my circle, flagging news articles of interest, engaging in feuds with trolls or writing in-depth threads on a particular topic, around two thousand people care enough about what I have to say to stay tuned on an ongoing basis (I imagine that many of the remaining 500 are either businesses or largely dormant accounts).
A study from 2016 suggested that of those people who had tweeted once within a six month period, their average number of followers was 707. This figure seems a little high to me, as I routinely interact with people whose following/follower figures are only in the double figures – but this may be a function of swimming almost exclusively in the political niche rather than venturing out into the deeper oceans of celebrity Twitter. Anyhow, the study would suggest that anything over 707 is then a pretty good sign, and in lieu of an affirmative action-gifted writing gig for The Spectator I am proud of my 2,500 followers as a sign that my hours in front of the keyboard are not entirely wasted.
Ultimately, all this predictable scandal tells us is what a fraud so much of journalism and political commentary has become. Portentously spewing words into the void of Twitter knowing that most of your audience is actually imaginary can’t bring positive feelings of journalistic pride, since one would be aware of the fraud. All that those followers can do is burnish one’s reputation and make one seem like an important person to get drinks with or be seen talking to at one of the many insufferable events that take place every day in Westminster or Washington, D.C.
And the problem is that for those journalists who buy Twitter followers, that’s just fine. They don’t want to organically build an engaged audience of followers who find what they say to be genuinely insightful. They may not object were it to happen, but actual professional accomplishment is clearly no longer the prize to these people. What they want is the aura of success, to be seen as uniquely knowledgeable, titillating or controversial without putting in the labour to do it themselves.
We see the same thing with many of our politicians. Twenty months on from the EU referendum and the number of MPs who have even a basic grasp of the technical issues relating to trade arising from Brexit can probably be counted on two hands. An even smaller number have paid much thought to the constitutional ramifications and the opportunities and threats to our future governance, if any at all. The most significant political development to happen in Britain in decades, and only a handful of our parliamentarians have bothered to stop spouting slogans from the referendum campaign to actually master the issues at hand.
Why is this? Because sitting down with books and consulting advisers in a spirit of humility and willingness to learn is boring and unsexy. The personal payoff just isn’t there, particularly when one can do so much more for one’s career by bleating an angsty speech about the Evil Tor-ees in the Commons chamber or going viral on social media with a well-timed quip on Question Time. And the only reason that our star journalists – the ones who pull in the big bucks and now get terribly worked up at the thought that their celebrity pay packets might not be “equal” – have not rumbled the politicians and revealed the extent of their ignorance is because much of the legacy media is in an equally benighted state.
The whole reason our politics are currently so dysfunctional is that being good at your actual job is no longer adequately incentivised. Looking good and frantically maintaining all the appropriate outward signs of success and positive momentum are what matters most, not solid work diligently performed in the spirit of self-improvement. That’s why people cut corners and do things like participate in Twitter follower-purchasing frauds – because they believe, often correctly, that the rewards which flow from mastering an issue or having an original idea are far less than those which flow from being on some insufferable “Westminster’s 100 people to watch in 2018” list.
You can write for months or years before establishment journalists (as I did) that the Tories were going on an ideology-free jaunt into political oblivion, or that Jeremy Corbyn ought to be taken seriously because the public responds to conviction and consistency, but it doesn’t matter. You won’t get the slightest credit, because nothing has officially been thought or written until it has come from certain approved sources within the Westminster Bubble. And even within the bubble exists a hierarchy, with all of the attendant temptations to level-up by artificially boosting one’s standing.
And that’s why I never have and never will buy Twitter followers. It represents everything that is rotten, sleazy and stupid about modern politics, and the alarming frequency with which people who shouldn’t be within ten promotions from the top of their respective fields end up prancing around at the pinnacle, lording it over the rest of us (be that the prime minister, whole swathes of Parliament, the editors of several newspapers, numerous television news personalities and various assorted celebrity columnists).
We will never live in a perfect meritocracy, and it is stupid to set unrealistic goals which ignore human nature. But one thing you ought to be able to trust in this day and age is that the Very Serious Journalist with the blue “verified” tick next to their Twitter account name is not perpetrating a fundamental fraud every time they broadcast their news, analysis and opinions.
I earned my Twitter audience, and my follower count rises and falls according to the value I deliver. Anything short of this basic standard of behaviour is akin to selling a used car having first tampered with the odometer. And while social media juicing may not be illegal, we should look upon those who engage in it with the same scorn and distrust one might reserve for a convicted fraudster.
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