shutterstock_154181867The dubious practice of buying fake Twitter followers in bulk to boost numbers for clients is more pervasive than many online marketers would care to admit. What’s perhaps less well known is just how influential all these fake accounts may actually be on the network.

Twitter for its part, claims that fewer than 5% of its 230 million active users are fakes. But the real number is most likely somewhat higher than that. Last summer, an independent security research team from Italy found as many as 20 million fake Twitter accounts for sale. That would amount to almost 10% of the micro-blogging network’s total active monthly users.

Fake followers, real influence

But despite Twitter’s efforts to downplay the number of fake users that are out there, one thing that’s widely underestimated is just how active and influential these fakes can actually be. Beyond just making someone appear to have broader reach than they really do, all these fake followers can in fact exert a very real influence on what trends on the network.

When properly harnessed, faked Twitter accounts can be powerful enough to turn something or someone into a “trending topic,” putting it just below the “promoted trends” that Twitter sells for up to $200,000 a day.

Twitter takes steps to banish fakes

Earlier this year Twitter actually took steps to reduce the number of fake accounts living on its network. Working with a research team from UC Berkeley, they purchased fake accounts and worked to identify characteristics they had in common, eventually developing a filter that was applied in April.

It worked . . . for a while. But it wasn’t long before the fakers adapted and were back up and running.

The black market for fake Twitter followers is huge and seems to be growing, despite attempts by the network to stem it. After all, the number of followers a brand, individual or organization has is one of the first metrics we use to gauge what kind of reach they have.

Money can’t buy you love

Having a certain number of fake followers is actually somewhat natural. Even an average user may find that between one and four percent of their followers are fakes. But anything beyond 10 percent is likely to be an indication that fakes have been purchased.

It may be tempting to purchase fake followers, for yourself or for your clients. But remember that inflated numbers don’t equate genuine engagement. And while artificially boosted numbers and manipulation may help in the short term, what matters in the long-term are engagement, influence and making true connections. And those are things you can’t acquire from buying follower-bots in bulk.