President Donald Trump has 47.9 million followers on Twitter. But, by
one estimate, almost 18 million—about 38%—are fake.
astounding tally of fraudulent followers has been widely reported.
What hasn’t been explored is the huge number of bots following the
media institutions covering Trump. It turns out the president’s
problem isn’t unique.
you look at large media institutions, the numbers of bogus users is
staggering. According to the service Twitter
Audit, 17 million of the New York Times’ 41 million are fake.
So are seven million of Fox News’ 17 million followers. The problem
is ubiquitous. About 11% of Breitbart’s nearly one million followers
and 17% of the New Republic’s 160,000 are fake.
month, the Times struck deeper at Twitter’s integrity with a story
practice of buying fake followers. The Times called out
politicians, actors, and even newspaper writers in the story.
Twitter has since deleted about a million erroneous accounts, but
some estimate the social network is haunted by nearly 50
Twitter is built on bots, how much stock should news outlets put in
the social network? On the other hand, if outlets can’t control who
follows them, does this even matter? It does if you expand the scope
beyond fake followers and look at the real value, or lack there off,
of Twitter’s relationship with journalism.
original metrics used to judge a print publication’s value were
fairly straightforward. First you looked at circulation, a hard
number that showed the amount of people actually buying your
publication. Then you looked at advertising revenue, a number that
couldn’t really be doctored. But as historic profits declined and
journalism moved online, traditional metrics only made print look
the face of declining circulation, revenue, and profits, the
industry looked for a new metric,” said Kevin Convey, a Quinnipiac
University professor who teaches “Mobile Journalism: the Future of
News” and is the former editor-in-chief at the New York Daily News.
“The first new metric was clicks. But over the course of a few
years, we started to look at clicks as a hollow measure of
engagement. As click numbers became less important, social media
began to take its place. Social media platforms first became an
invaluable tool for reporters to find sources, to actually gather
news. Then they quickly became distribution channels.”
began pushing reporters to break news on Facebook and “live tweet”
everything from court proceedings to crime scenes to concerts. As
news outlets and journalists built social media profiles, they began
to judge their worth by their number of friends and followers. These
became the new metrics. But they came with problems circulation and
month, Facebook announced an overhaul of its news
feed algorithm that would favor posts by a
user’s friends over posts shared by media outlets. Paired with
Twitter’s massive bots infestation, suddenly the new metric of
friends and followers seemed much less important.
LaForme, the digital tools reporter at the Poynter Institute for
Media Studies, likes to think of the Twitter metric in comparison to
tracking TV ratings.
Nielsen were supplying numbers and it turned out 15% of those number
were made up of non-human bots, we would drop Nielsen as a rating
system,” LaForme said. “Social network numbers are being used by
people as a mark of credibility. If significant amounts of those
users are fake, that undermines the credibility of both the news
organization touting the numbers and Twitter itself.”
would be incredibly infeasible for any major news organization weed
out their fake followers. But they aren’t powerless in all of this.
news outlets and journalists make up a huge chunk of Twitter
traffic, and traffic leads to revenue. Analyzing Pew
Research data, Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab contributor
Ricardo Bilton said their findings “suggest that news outlets—not
commentary blogs, advocacy organizations, government sites, or fake
news sites—are winning out when it comes to what’s most often shared
when people talk about policy on Twitter.” Media, most often legacy
media, rules many Twitter conversations, which gives it the leverage
to pressure the network to combat its phony accounts.
publishers and editors can stop pushing journalists to maintain such
active Twitter presences.
Chicago Sun-Times briefly suspended
film critic Richard Roeperlast month, for buying approximately
50,000 followers on at least six occasions from a company called
Duvemi. Roeper is the most high profile media personality revealed
to have engaged in the practice, but he wasn’t alone. Included in
the many examples of people buying followers are a
writer for The Hill, a contributor to Breitbart, and editor at
China’s state-run news agency. No honest journalist would excuse the
practice, but many understand it. Almost anyone who has worked in a
newsrooms has felt a strong explicit or implicit pressure to build
an impressive social media fiefdom. This often leaves busy
journalists tweeting stories to bots or getting bogged down in
endless online debates, commonly with other journalists.
many writers, Twitter can feel like an echo chamber,” LaForme said.
“I also don’t know if it’s always the best use of time.”
someone questions me on Twitter and I write back and there is an
exchange in these bites of 240 characters, it starts taking up a lot
of time,” he added. “If someone emails me, I can give them a nice,
thorough response. Twitter, like all social networks, is an
attention seeker. It is constantly asking us to come back and engage
more. That can be a negative for journalists strapped for time.”
whole problem could already be headed for a course correction. As
more publications successfully mine subscriptions and online
paywalls for revenue, the need for advertising, which traditionally
supported the bulk of a paper’s budget, drops. As the need for
advertising drops, the race for clicks and likes and shares slows.
Twitter usage and its influence should decline when more people go
straight to media websites for their news.
a while news organizations weren’t really distinguishing what types
of audiences coming to their sites, only that audiences were coming
to their sites,” LaForme said.
led to a reliance on what some people called drive-by
clicks—numbers, not relationships with readers, mattered. This
philosophy mirrored itself in the new world of social networks. But
if a non-subscriber retweets a New York Times tweet to a bunch of
other non-subscribers, that can prove a valueless Twitter
interaction, one in which the paper gains nothing.
that follower, who may not even read the story they tweet, even pay
a dime to support the news organization?” Convey asked. “As
newspapers realize digital advertising is not going to pay the
freight, they need to cultivate a deeper relationship with readers.
People liking a newspaper on Facebook or following it on Twitter is
not going to float the boat.”
are learning loyal audiences matter more—loyal audiences know you,
trust you, and are willing to pay for what you provide. Of course as
long as Trump—and Bernie Sanders, Marco Rubio, Pope Francis, and
other leaders—use Twitter to debate policy, journalists will
continue to spend a ton of time on the network.
real political discussions, important discussions are happening on
Twitter, journalists need to be there to take part,” Bilton said.
“And that makes sense. People who cover news need to be where the
conversations are happening.”
Jed on Twitter @jedgottlieb.
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