Mitt Romney got two sudden bursts of Twitter followers over the weekend, the exact cause of which was unknown. Many observers labeled the accounts as fake, possibly purchased by the campaign or some outsider for reasons unclear.
Romney was averaging about 3,500 new followers every day from mid-March to mid-July. Over the weekend of July 20, that number surged to 47,416 a sign that something odd was certainly afoot.
Our analysis revealed that the social media team at Romney headquarters didn't do anything to produce that astronomical change organically: none of his tweets or Facebook posts received higher than normal levels of engagement and no email pitch went out to Romney supporters asking them to follow Romney on Twitter.
Romney has a Promoted Account on Twitter, which could explain the new followers except his account has had Promoted status for at least several weeks, which doesn't explain the timing of the surges. (We'd expect an immediate surge if the Promoted Account status was responsible for the phenomenon.)
Attention's analysts concluded that many of Romney's new followers were likely fake accounts, which can be purchased online from several dealers.
Providers of fake accounts try to to make them look real in order to dodge Twitter's spam police by pulling profile photos from other accounts and tweeting at least once but no more than five times.
However, telltale signs of ersatz accounts still exist: if a Twitter account has under five tweets, for example, it's probably trying to avoid detection as a fake account. When thousands of Twitter accounts suspected of being fake tweet similar content follow one another almost exclusively or have no followers, it's another sign they're illegitimate.
Those giveaway signs were detected by Anders Nilsson, a Swedish IT security expert who picked about 10,000 of Romney's new followers at random to analyze. His results? 67% of the followers haven't tweeted more than five times, 15% had zero followers of their own and 16.4% of the followers' accounts were created just before Romney's surge.
As Nilsson wrote, "To me, it sure looks like someone purchased followers for Mr. Romney. Now, if that was someone trying to help, or someone trying to discredit him, I don't know."
The motive behind the follower purchase (or purchases, as the two spikes possibly indicate two different buyers) remains a mystery. The buyer(s) may have been a troublemaker looking to discredit the Romney campaign or just doing it for a laugh. It makes little sense for the Romney campaign itself to be behind the purchase, as follower counts mean little in the long run when it comes to social politics, it's online engagement with real voters that counts.
Neither Romney's campaign nor Twitter are commenting on the matter. For Twitter, the incident highlights an unpleasant reality of the platform: thousands of illegitimate accounts are bought and sold every month to pad follower counts or spread spam. To the Romney team, the incident is a small embarrassment for a campaign that's working hard to prove it's just as digitally-savvy as that of its Democratic opponent.
Who do you think is behind Romney's surge in Twitter followers? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Image courtesy of Mitt Romney on Facebook