Ethics and the Fake Twitter Followers Biz (But wait, there’s more!)

I’ve corrected a few small errors (my apologies) and added some of the latest research on this timely topic!

At the annual Poynter Kent State University Media Ethics Workshop, I heard from some wonderful talent from the Poynter Institute and a variety of experienced journalists who cover celebrity news.  Because of the focus on the entertainment industry, celebrities specifically, I heard Twitter mentioned all the livelong day. What I didn’t hear was commentary on the fake followers problem, especially as it relates to the inherent ethical issues related to fake followers. (Recent research shows the percentage of fake or empty accounts for Lady Gaga, for example, is 45% of her 36.2 million followers.)

Consumers (and PR Professionals) Beware

A recent Digital Trends article posed the question of whether someone can buy Twitter legitimacy with fake followers. The article sited Italian security researchers Andrea Stroppa and Carlo De Micheli who investigated the practice of buying Twitter followers. Stroppa and De Micheli learned that buying fake followers is now a multimillion dollar business. According to the NY Times article, there are now more than two dozen services that sell fake Twitter accounts, but Mr. Stroppa and Mr. De Micheli said that they limited themselves to the seven most popular. After eliminating overlapping accounts, the researchers estimated that there are now as many as 20 million fake follower accounts.

That’s big business. It’s so big, that there are now other supporting business models cropping up to help people identify fake followers. Check out services like Status People and Social Bakers.

Savvy Spambots

In another article, Digital Trends spoke with Jason Ding, a research scientist from Barracuda Networks, who completed several studies on fake followers, sometimes referred to as bots or spambots, to try to learn how savvy the fake follower services are becoming. He found a website called Fast Followerz that offers a monthly subscription and even lets customers control how often followers are added. According to the article, the site boasts fake follower quality that can be guaranteed to pass the fake account test. (You’ve got to be kidding me.)

The Big Ethical Dilemma

I don’t know about you, but as a consumer, a Twitter user and a communication professional, I think there are some serious ethical considerations here. PR specialists like me who may use Twitter and other social media platforms as channels to communicate with various audiences must adhere to the PRSA Code of Ethics.  Among the top six professional values is honesty. Here the code states, “We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.”

What’s a PR Pro To Do?

As PR professionals, it is our responsibility to behave in an ethical manner and to advise our management team or clientele regarding ethical considerations related to communications, and now we’ve got to add Twitter account validation and monitoring to the list. We are responsible to do our best to preserve the integrity of the communication process with the public. So, if we’re asked to add Twitter account management to our list of duties (and, even if we’re not), we better start asking some questions related to the integrity of the account, use some of the latest tools to evaluate it, and then be prepared to provide good council and to take action accordingly. Think about it!

Copyright 2013, Tracy L. Teuscher, APR 

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