Twitter to Drop Millions of Followers in Effort to Crackdown on Fake Accounts

Twitter plans to start removing questionable accounts from users’ follower numbers on Thursday, reducing the total follower count on the platform by about 6 percent.
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Twitter will begin removing tens of millions of suspicious accounts from users’ followers on Thursday, signaling a major new effort to restore trust on the popular but embattled platform.

The reform takes aim at a pervasive form of social media fraud. Many users have inflated their followers on Twitter or other services with automated or fake accounts, buying the appearance of social influence to bolster their political activism, business endeavors or entertainment careers.

Twitter’s decision will have an immediate impact: Beginning on Thursday, many users, including those who have bought fake followers and any others who are followed by suspicious accounts, will see their follower numbers fall. While Twitter declined to provide an exact number of affected users, the company said it would strip tens of millions of questionable accounts from users’ followers. The move would reduce the total combined follower count on Twitter by about 6 percent — a substantial drop.

An investigation by The New York Times in January demonstrated that just one small Florida company sold fake followers and other social media engagement to hundreds of thousands of users around the world, including politicians, models, actors and authors. The revelations prompted investigations in at least two states and calls in Congress for intervention by the Federal Trade Commission. In interviews this week, Twitter executives said that The Times’s reporting pushed them to look more closely at steps the company could take to clamp down on the market for fakes, which is fueled in part by the growing political and commercial value of a widely followed Twitter account.

Officials at Twitter acknowledged that easy access to fake followers, and the company’s slowness in responding to the problem, had devalued the influence accumulated by legitimate users, sowing suspicion around those who quickly attained a broad following.

“We don’t want to incentivize the purchase of followers and fake accounts to artificially inflate follower counts, because it’s not an accurate measure of someone’s influence on the platform or influence in the world,” said Del Harvey, Twitter’s vice president for trust and safety. “We think it’s a really important and meaningful metric, and we want people to have confidence that these are engaged users that are following other accounts.”

The market for fakes was also hurting Twitter with advertisers, which increasingly rely on social media “influencers” — mini-celebrities who promote brands and products to their followers — to reach customers. In recent months, advertising and marketing firms have put pressure on Twitter, YouTube and other platforms to help ensure that influencers have the reach they claim. Last month, the consumer goods giant Unilever, which spends billions of dollars a year on advertising, announced that it would no longer pay influencers who purchased followers and would prioritize spending advertising dollars on platforms that took steps to stamp out fraud.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Nicholas Confessore and Gabriel J.X. Dance