Innovation

Election Tech Fakers: Are candidates artificially inflating their Twitter accounts?

Clinton and Trump add Twitter followers far faster than the competition. But are the accounts authentic? Twitter data suggests the candidates could be followed by thousands of phonies.

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Candidate new Twitter followers. | Image: William Stodden/Stata

Twitter and social media insights can drive stories by revealing previously obfuscated information. Since January TechRepublic has been consistently polling candidate Twitter data.

Through the primary season we have pulled and logged Twitter account data manually, and we've worked with a number of data companies to uncover tech stories in social media.

A clear Twitter trend has emerged this campaign season: Fake followers are everywhere. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in particular use social media aggressively and effectively. The pair outpaced the competition all season. Clinton and Trump are the frontrunners and were household names before the election. Are those factors alone enough to earn such a striking lead? The Cruz and Sanders teams also have savvy and sophisticated data and social media teams, not to mention passionate and highly incentivised backers.

READ: Get ready for big data's wild ride (Tech Pro Research story)

Are candidates using or buying "fake" Twitter followers? It's not a crazy proposition. Celebrities and social media "specialists" have been buying fake followers for years. Though using phony followers seems off-message for political campaigns trying to leverage authenticity as an election tactic, it's not unreasonable to assume candidates would want to bolster the perception of success by inflating accounts.

What is a "fake" follower? Factors like account age, profile image, activity, and Tweet content help determine the validity of an account. Several web services—including TwitterAudit, BotOrNot, and StatusPeople—purport to reveal data about the quality of Twitter followers.

A cached version of a now-removed Yahoo News article from August, 2015 reported:

Clearly the definition of a fake follower is open to interpretation. Some of the followers that these services consider fake are actually news collection services that harvest tweets and use them to find and publish news stories; when I tweet about this story after it's posted, those services will pick up that tweet, and then may put this story on their pages, or include a link back to Yahoo Tech ... In other words, fake doesn't necessarily mean they're not real followers. It could mean that they're just not individual users who are constantly following, responding, and adding other followers.

And of course, Clinton and Trump are global brands, likely to be followed by spammers and bots.

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Candidate new Twitter followers over time. | Image: William Stodden/Excel

So are the accounts fake and inflated? Over the next few weeks TechRepublic will try to define the properties of "fake" follower and determine if campaigns purchased followers. Social media is an important tool for business and government alike. We hope to uncover unique insights about how business and government can more effectively use social media and big data.

If you're a data scientist, social media professional, or inquisitive TechRepublic reader we'd love your ideas on how to inspect campaign social media data. Please leave a comment below or ping us on Twitter @TechRepublic.

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About Dan Patterson

Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.

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