On Your Side Investigation: Can you detect a fake social media following?

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - A dull Facebook page posting mostly static images of poodles and poodle-mixes has more than 1,500 followers. It's associated with a Twitter account that has tweeted only once, yet has more than 640 followers.

Despite the sizeable following, no one engages with any of the posts.

That's because these followers were purchased.

"It's increasingly common," says Betsy Emmons, Ph.D, a professor in the Journalism and Mass Communication Department at Samford University, about the practice of buying social media followers.

In this OYS investigation, I created the social media accounts about the dogs and purchased the followers to test how quickly a following is generated through inorganic means.

The Facebook page, DoodleLove4Ever, got nearly double the followers expected only days after paying two different companies a combined total of $41. Followers of the Twitter account, @DoodleLove4Evr, were purchased for $10.

"There's pressure to have high social media followings because that can equate to credibility in the consumer's mind," Emmons explains.

To a consumer, a large following signals awareness and recognition of the product, service, or brand, she says. While buying that following seems a quick way to inflate the numbers, Emmons says it does not equate to a larger bottom line.

"Research tells us repeatedly that it doesn't mean an increase in sales," she says.

"Where it's dangerous is when you're doing advertising on Twitter," says David Caplan, co-founder of TwitterAudit, a website that predicts whether followers were recruited using "inorganic, fraudulent, or dishonest means."

"Essentially, it's kind of like you're committing fraud," says Caplan. "You're inflating your viewing numbers, your following numbers, so you can go out and charge someone money so you can Tweet something for them.

But, TwitterAudit's report on @DoodleLove4Evr scores the followers as 100 percent real, when all followers were purchased.

"The algorithm is not perfect," explains Caplan. "Over the past few years, the companies that buy and sell fake accounts have gotten very good at hiding fake accounts essentially."

Twitter prohibits purchasing followers and promises to suspend accounts that buy followers, retweets and likes.

Facebook also blocks accounts and removes "fake likes" when detected. More information from Facebook about its policy is here: https://www.facebook.com/business/a/page/fake-likes

And if the user is discovered to have purchased a following, the cost can be larger than the monetary investment.

"Once the consumer has found out that the purchase has occurred on the business's side, the lack of trust means that their sales should drop," says Emmons.

Another shortfall of the purchased following was the lack of engagement. None of the followers liked, commented, or shared a single post.

Savvy consumers can use a lack of engagement, and other clues, to figure out whether the following is not what seems. Also, inspect the followers' profiles. Are many missing profile photos? Or do they lack descriptions or don't make sense? These could be signs that skepticism is warranted.

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