A suspiciously large uptick in Mitt Romney's Twitter followers caught the attention of the tech community recently. While some suspected the campaign had sought a bump in social media presence by possibly paying for followers, the Romney camp says no, "we don't need fake followers." So what's the deal?
Over 24 hours starting July 21, the presumptive Republican nominee acquired nearly 117,000 followers — an increase of about 17 percent. Such a large and rapid increase was immediately noted by bloggers and Twitter commentators.
Buying Twitter followers and retweets isn't a new phenomenon; other politicians and public figures have inflated their accounts by such means. Meanwhile, it is nearly impossible for a popular Twitter account to verify its many followers as legitimate persons.
Barracuda Labs decided to look closely at the data, as part of a larger investigation of purchased Twitter followers. After analyzing Romney's 152,966 newest followers (as of July 26, when they collected the data), the conclusion was inescapable: A huge proportion of them were almost certainly fake.
Consistent with thousands of other fake accounts they analyzed, the Romney followers were overwhelmingly new accounts with almost no tweets. But they differed enough for Barracuda to conclude that they had been bought from a different service than the sample group used for the evaluation. There are, as it turns out, many follower-peddling services.
The rest of Barracuda's investigation offered important context. They found that the average price of 1,000 followers was $18, though such packages vary in quality (i.e. detectability, age and followers) and better sets may run as much as $55. That means that at the average price, 150,000 followers would cost less than $3,000 — hardly a sum worthy of conspiracy claims. Anyone with a couple thousand dollars can direct thousands of followers at the candidate of their choice, for any reason, at any time.
In the meantime, both Romney and President Barack Obama have both had what appears to be steady, organic growth of followers; a few thousand new followers a day with little variation makes for a nearly linear graph. This caused Romney's odd follower bump to stick out like a sore thumb, as you can see in the figure below.
While Romney's critics pointed a finger to this as a clumsy attempt at social media manipulation, the campaign is making it clear that it is not involved.
"Under no circumstances would we buy Twitter followers. It's inconsistent with everything we've done to date," Zac Moffatt, Romney's digital director, told NBC News. "We don't need fake followers to justify our social media policy. What possible benefit could there be?"
In fact, given the ruckus the follower jump has caused in the tech community, it could just as easily be the work of a Romney opponent. But unless someone comes forward claiming responsibility, it's impossible to tell.
It's also worth pointing out that it's possible, and even likely, that President Obama too has many followers who are not real people. Twitter is a place where companies, fictional characters and just plain throwaway accounts number in the thousands. Unlike Facebook, this is not a violation of Twitter user policy, but in many cases part of its design.
In fact, it's probable that most major figures on Twitter have a significant proportion of bot followers. Barracuda told NBC News that it is conducting further investigations, into both Obama and Romney's followers, to seek out fake accounts and clues as to their origins.
So the strange thing about this whole situation is not that there are fake people following Romney, but that so many of them began following him all at once.
The act triggered scrutiny and swift repercussion from the social network itself. More than 10 percent of the new accounts tracked by Barracuda have already been suspended, according to Twitter, which told NBC News that high-profile changes like this rarely go unnoticed. Spammers and unauthorized bots are weeded out by a combination of automatic and manual removal, said the microblogging network.
Though in some circles this raised a furor, for most it's no big deal, or at best just an interesting mystery. Twitter is more focused on issues that affect regular users, such as downtime and new features, while the president and Mr. Romney are probably too busy campaigning to worry about these transient digital shenanigans.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.