I love an election. I’ve always enjoyed the thrust and parry of politics and, as someone who advises others about effective marketing and communication, I think there’s a lot to be learnt from well-run election campaigns which are all about creating impact and achieving cut-through. There is a simple joy to be found in a sharp campaign slogan, a well styled candidate photograph or a well-designed election banner.

The most exciting aspect the recent local government elections in our neck of the woods wasn’t any of these things. It wasn’t even the sausage sizzle at the local public school where I went to vote. It was the fake social media profiles set up by a supporter of one of the candidates to disparage the commentary of other candidates and their supporters.

It appears that at least three ‘locals’ (that no-one had ever heard of before … or since) were criticising almost every single post on the social media pages of other candidates. It was incessant and, at times, aggressive.

One of the aggrieved parties conducted a reverse image search which revealed the profile picture for one of the protagonists belonged to a recent retiree, turned travel blogger, from Bristol called Heather. None of the three ‘concerned residents’, all of whom seemed to have a strong grasp of local issues, were listed on the electoral roll for any ward in this or any surrounding electorate. Their candidate lost the election.

By its own admission, there are almost 100 million fake Facebook profiles. Facebook has three classifications of ‘fakeness’ – duplicates, meaning an individual has created more than one account; misclassified, meaning someone has created an account for their labradoodle or fictitious friend they met at Comic-con 2014 and undesirable, an account created to deliberately mislead or deceive.

There are a few legitimate reasons why someone might set up a fake profile including for law enforcement or market research purposes but, in the main, fake accounts are created because people are devious or stupid, or a combination of both.

Give or take a few million, there are 2.4 billion active social media users in the world, almost one third of the 7.6 billion people on earth. One million new social media accounts are created every day across all platforms and, on average, internet users have five social media accounts across all channels.

Facebook is the monster of all platforms with 2.01 billion active users, adding six new profiles every second. The average number of friends for each user is 338. More than half of all Facebook users (1.32 billion) log in every day – they are engaged, regular users of the platform which makes them a promising audience for marketers. 40 million businesses have a company page and two million of them advertise regularly on Facebook.

According to research from the University of Southern California around 15 per cent of Twitter accounts are ‘managed’ by bots rather than humans. Researchers at USC monitored hundreds of user traits including number of followers, tweet content and sentiment, time between tweets and profile data and concluded almost one in nine Twitter accounts are fake. Twitter itself admits that “8.5 percent of all active accounts contacted Twitter’s server without any discernible user-initiated action.”

Inside a Twitter Robot Factory, a story by Jeff Elder that appeared in the Wall Street Journal a few years back, followed the work of a bot manger, Jim Vidmar who purchases fake accounts (the going rate was US$58 per 1000) and then programs them to “follow” specific account. He manages robots for 50 clients. The bots manipulate Twitter statistics significantly – they tweet, retweet or forward other tweets, send and reply to messages and follow and unfollow other Twitter accounts. Vidmar presented evidence that his bots ensured his clients were “trending” on Twitter, giving them prominence on the platform.

In 2015 Italian internet security researchers Andrea Stroppa and Carlo De Micheli found 20 million fake Twitter accounts for sale over a three month period and also purchased software that allows spammers to create unlimited fake accounts. Here’s a fantastic article published in New Republic magazine that explains the business of generating social media profiles for sale in great detail.

The number of fake or useless social media profiles is important because it can impact the way we spend money, support causes, absorb and process news or cast our vote. A large Twitter following can give an up-and-coming politician an air of authority or turn a musician into a rising star.

One tool (Fake Follower Check) revealed some astonishing numbers behind popular social media accounts including that 71% of Lady Gaga’s 35 million Twitter followers are fake or inactive. Another, Twitter Audit, estimates 11.6 million of Trump’s 32 million Twitter followers are accounts run by bots. These estimates are on par with other high-profile ‘Tweeters’ like Barack Obama who is followed by around 31 million (35%) fictitious people.

Dare I say it but, it stands to reason that there would be a number of Australian businesses who have a sizable fake audience … not to mention plenty of fake reviews but that’s a topic for another day.

To me, the main issue around paying for followers is about brand authenticity. Someone (either an employee or a compliant third party) has paid for ‘Likes’. It’s lazy and deceptive and in conflict with the ‘vision, mission and values’ written for pretty much any business, anywhere, ever.

If acquisition of followers is a key benchmark, it keeps the social media team in a job, but it must feel pretty hollow to know a chunk of your audience is permanently out to lunch with the tooth fairy. And, depending on the nature of the business and the size of the spend, if it was ever proven it could cause the brand significant damage.

The other major concern is that it skews all analytics around reach, engagement, conversion and re-marketing. In fact, for a business with a relatively high number of fake followers any such data would be pretty much useless. Fake followers will also eventually damage business cred with Google which is just about the biggest sin a digital marketer can make.

As a business owner it is frustrating to see your own social media platforms level out. I can relate as my FB page has been sitting around a few hundred ‘likes’ for months (in fact, you should ‘Like’ it … go on, you know you want to. It’s just a click away!) but I would never encourage or assist a client to buy fake followers . There are plenty of other ways to grow your social media numbers. They are not as immediate or as cheap but the longer term benefits far outweigh any impact of a quick spike.

I suppose the main thing to remember when it comes to using social media for business is that you can buy ‘friends’ but only real people will ever buy from you.

If you’d like to talk about your social media strategy, content generation and account management, please send me an email (steve@marketingsherpa.com.au) or connect with me on LinkedIn.