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When conducting marketing for sites such as, I hand-select websites and blogs to place advertisements. In this manual selection process, several factors are taken into account, including the site’s Google page rank, the number of backlinks, meaning the number of incoming links from other websites, as well as its number of Facebook and Twitter followers. To advertise on a site, for example, it has to have a Page Rank of 3/10 or more, or at least 500 Facebook and/or Twitter followers.

We all know that Facebook and Twitter aren’t the only social media portals out there – just look at the recent spike in Pinterest users. But Facebook and Twitter continue to be the main networks that determine a person or a brand’s social media influence. Websites such as Search Engine Journal even provide entire articles on “Facebook Fan Acquisition Strategies.” In fact, many companies have already taken these strategies to heart, providing discounts exclusively for Facebook users, as well as an “incentivized like,” where Facebook users can access specific content only when they “like” the Facebook page in question. “Get Fans. Get Revenue,” reads the slogan of the Search Engine Journal article by Brian Carter.

It appears that social media is gaining increasing popularity and power; after all, if Facebook were a country, it would be the third largest in the world, according to Advertisers in particular have come to rely on the number of followers to determine where to situate their commercials.

But what if the number of followers has been manipulated? What if they are being bought and sold, just like any other product on the market?

I came across this issue when conducting marketing work for Founder Jim Zhu advised me only to trust Google Page Rank to evaluate a website’s popularity. “Facebook followers can be purchased at a very low cost,” Zhu said, adding:

“For example, out of 638 mycitycuisine followers, about 500 of them were purchased through a company that offers social media marketing service at very low cost - I did it as an experiment to see if the social media marketing can produce real result. None of these followers have participated in any discussions. I suspect many are fake accounts. So I don't trust the number of Facebook followers.”

With a simple Google search, I came across a plethora articles that mentioned how Twitter and Facebook followers could be bought through numerous websites, such as Twiends. What’s more, followers were even being auctioned on eBay for pennies, as TechCrunch reports. Many times, the differences in prices were determined by whether the followers to be bought were “targeted” or “non-targeted;” that is, whether they would be relevant to (and thus possibly interested in) your company. In a response to the TechCrunch article, one user said that he conducted an experiment purchasing both targeted and untargeted followers. He concluded to “buy only targeted followers” since they resulted in a high number of clicks to his products, and thus “are worth investing money.”

But is it ethical to purchase social media followers? Isn’t this misleading for advertisers who rely on number of followers to determine whether a site has a wide impact? Social Technologist Christian Payne (@Documentally) opines, “it is very misleading to those that you are meant to be engaging with.” By purchasing followers, people are “basically hid[ing] behind this number of fake followers and a network that [they] haven’t at all nurtured, according to Payne.

Companies have an ethical responsibility to not obscure their number of followers by purchasing fake ones. In fact, companies such as Twiends pride themselves on providing “ethical community building.” Their guidelines read:

“Unfortunately, some groups will attempt to grow their audiences via any means possible, including means that can be considered unethical, a violation of twitter's terms of service, or in some cases criminal too. Twiends decided to make its mark in the Twitter ecosystem by being the 'good' community growing service. We recognized that our long-term success would only come about if we played by ALL the rules, consistently and fairly. Our number one priority is to always take our guidance from Twitter and to conform to their terms of service always. We recognize that failure to do this will result in our service not enduring through the years.”

Advertisers, in turn, need to be aware of this issue and instead use other tools to determine a site’s popularity. Payne suggests that a viable alternative is to look at the number of lists that a Twitter follower is on. The Twitter blog explains: “Twitter users can organize others into groups, or “lists”. When you click to view a list, you'll see a stream of Tweets from all the users included in that group.”

Payne adds, “For me, that is way more important than how many followers someone has, because people are taking the time to curate your Twitter account into a particular list.” He also warns that Twitter “has managed to bury [the visibility of lists] now in the new interface.” He also advises that, “if someone follows me and they’re not on any lists and have masses of followers, and they’re not necessarily following that many people, I tend to report them as spam.”

As everyday Twitter users who aren’t advertisers, we might ask ourselves why we should care whether others are purchasing followers or not. According to Payne, there not only lies a vacuum behind purchasing fake followers, but doing so would also ruin Twitter for what it is. “For me, some of the people in my Twitter network have become my best friends,” he says. “There’s people that make me laugh, there’s people who make me cry, there’s people who hire me for business, there’s people that I hire for business…If everybody went out and [purchased masses of followers] tomorrow, you’d be breaking how Twitter works for everybody.” As Erik Schonfeld writes, “you can’t buy real followers. They come to you.”

 Learn more about Isabel Eva Bohrer at

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