I, TweetBot: Are Fake Users Social Media’s Dirty Little Secret?

iStock-586712790-bot-social-media-300x300President Donald Trump loves to tweet. Although he has been a prolific tweeter since his days as a reality TV star, during his presidential campaign and subsequent time in office, President Trump has taken the “Art of the Tweet” to new heights. The media, in return, has done its part in slicing, dicing, mincing, chopping, deconstructing, and otherwise analyzing President Trump’s Twitter use six ways to Sunday. (Covfefe, anyone?)

Recently, though, it’s not just the content of President Trump’s tweets that has garnered attention. It’s also his audience.

It should come as no surprise that since achieving the highest office in the land, President Trump’s Twitter following has grown tremendously, from 7.6 million followers in April 2016 to more than 30 million today. But all is not as it seems. A recent report by Newsweek suggests that almost half of President Trump’s Twitter followers are fake, including as many as 80% of the followers he has added since his inauguration. These tweet-less, picture-less, otherwise inactive accounts are sometimes called “bots,” and they serve one very important purpose: to make it seem like the accounts they follow are more popular than they really are. And popularity is the name of the social media game.

Consider influencers.

Influencers are content creators and online mavens of lifestyle and fashion who capitalize on their large social media followings through product placement and endorsement deals. Influencers are becoming big business. The most popular users of Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube can command as much as $25,000 for a single sponsored post, and Forbes recently announced its inaugural Top Influencer list. For people paid by the follower, the allure of fake bots is understandable.

What is emerging is a battlefield that pits influencers against the brands and companies that sponsor them. It’s an arms race of websites that audit social media followers and vending machines that sell fake ones. For every would-be influencer who may be tempted to acquire fake followers, there is a potential sponsor who wants to be sure its marketing budget is being spent to reach real, actual humans. Bots are a problem.

As we have previously discussed, the FTC has rules about the disclosures required when influencers are paid to endorse a product, and lawsuits have already been filed against influencers by followers who feel they were misled. Does the rise of fake followers mean the next round of legal action facing influencers might come from the brands that sponsor them? The idea is certainly on the table.

In March, Variety reported on a lawsuit filed against Jennifer Lopez by Sidekick Group, a manufacturer of two-wheeled hoverboards. The suit alleges that Sidekick provided J Lo with 42 hoverboards for use in an upcoming show in Las Vegas in exchange for promotional posts by J Lo on Twitter and Instagram. Unhappy that J Lo’s influencing amounted to only a single tweet, Sidekick filed suit seeking around $50,000, the full retail value of the hoverboards. While J Lo’s apparent sin was not tweeting enough, what happens if a brand discovers that half of the users it has paid a premium price to reach are bots? Will we see a series of suits against influencers alleging fraudulent misrepresentation or concealment? Will it depend on whether the offending influencer is a celebrity or simply a regular person with a growing following?

Right now there may be more questions than answers, but it’s clear that the bot issue extends further than just product endorsements and presidential tweets. The FCC’s recent attempt to solicit public comments about net neutrality quickly became a fight between opposing bot factions, and last season, an episode of HBO’s Silicon Valley riffed on startups hiring overseas “click farms” to inflate their user numbers and hence their appeal to venture capitalists. So watch this space. And if you are a real, actual human, go ahead and click our follow us on Twitter. Bots need not apply.