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How celebrities buy Twitter followings — and how you can, too

50 Cent, Mercedes-Benz, and Pepsi may all have falsely inflated follower accounts

What do Newt Gingrich, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Louis Vuitton, and Diddy all have in common? According to a social media watchdog group, they all may have bought their way to Twitter fame, purchasing small armies of followers to boost their digital profiles.

A report in the New York Times takes a look at the murky weirdness of Twitter and Facebook's fake follower problem. Brands, celebrities, and regular ol' you can purchase hundreds — even thousands — of Twitter followers for the right price.

Now, I know what you're thinking: Why would anyone do such a thing?

"For some people, it simply feeds the ego," says the Times' Nicole Perlroth. "For people and brands, a large Twitter following or Facebook fan base helps increase their visibility. If followers are constantly clicking on links to a brand’s landing page, it also lifts the brand's position in Google's search results."

According to Altimeter Group, which has been tracking the activity of high-profile accounts, it's all about generating buzz. But as anyone with an inkling of marketing know-how will tell you, quantity doesn't necessarily equate quality — especially when the followers in question, well, aren't real. 

Take the Twitter account of Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), which, for two years, was gaining an average of 15 new followers every day. Then last July, his account exploded with 19,705 new Twitter users, mostly egg avatars. One day a few months later, 13,000 of his followers suddenly evaporated, likely a zap-job by the Twitter mothership.

"Many brands struggle to measure the top line value of social media," Susan Etlinger, an analyst with Altimeter Group, tells the Times. "So there is a thirst to show momentum in different ways, one of which is to show that the brand has a bigger audience today than it did yesterday."

So how exactly does one build a fake online following? If you're so inclined, you can head over to websites like Fiverr, which functions as a digital billboard for dubious online services. For $5, you can purchase anything from 200 Facebook "likes" to 10,500 "REAL looking Twitter followers."

As Gizmodo notes, writing a script that will add thousands of bots to an account doesn't take any technological wizardry, either. As a "reputable hacker friend" explains it:

Generally they use compromised accounts or create them in batches with some kind of captcha bypassing exploits, or by simply creating a bunch of accounts, manually filling those captchas.

But yeah, mostly compromised twitter accounts acquired with botnets, they run a script to make those accounts to follow the profile in question... Nothing complicated really. [Gizmodo]

For the average user, falsely inflating your follower count is more of a vanity project than anything. It's not technically illegal, either — it's just kind of sad. As Mary C. Long at Mediabistro's All Twitter blog notes, "You're a fraud," for starters, and more importantly, possessing an account loaded with dubious #SocialMediaMavens, Beliebers, and sexbots is an obvious "credibility killer."

And on Twitter, where information flies fast and furious, credibility is the one of the rare currencies still worth valuing. Buyer beware.

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