Last week, The New York Times published an in-depth, investigative piece titled “The Follower Factory.” The story followed the virtual black market of fake followers on social media, bought by companies, organizations, public figures and even journalists.
Buying followers, to many familiar with internet culture, is not a new phenomenon; however, the story revealed frightening details about the large number of bots that exist across the digital ecosystem — specifically, how easily they can be bought and how, in the wrong hands, they can be utilized to spread false and divisive content across platforms.
Twitter’s numbers were the most surprising, as the Times reported about 15 percent (or 48 million) of Twitter’s active users could be automated accounts, simulating the interactions and identities of real people. Despite these projected numbers, the platform has failed to systematically combat these bot networks and the shadow companies behind them.
Yet, a larger concern looms behind this topic. The Times’ piece also lists the names of media personnel who bought their online followings. The list varies from a media columnist at The Hill to correspondents at E! News and CBS to an Infowars reporter. Most notably, Chicago Sun-Times’ film critic Richard Roeper was put on leave without detailed explanation, as the paper announced an investigation into his social media activity.
But in Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi’s response to Roeper’s leave, Farhi reports how many news organizations, from NPR to the Times, do not have explicit social media policies against purchasing followers, mainly because the topic has never had to be addressed before.
Since Roeper identifies as a film critic and not as a reporter, his role at the Sun-Times is slightly different. His writing consists more of opinions and commentary; therefore, Farhi interprets Roeper’s fake followers as an ego boost instead of a deceptive action.
Yet, the inflation of a journalist’s follower count to increase social perception of one’s influence and trustworthiness in the trade can be construed as deceptive. Journalists are bound by their ethics to the sources they report on and the audiences they inform.
Credibility, transparency, and honesty are a few of the traits that journalists — at every age and stage in their career — should strive to embody, especially in an era in which the news media is constantly being questioned for its veracity. Purchasing large numbers of automated followers creates a false narrative about a journalist’s career and can alter perceptions of the influence of their writing or online presence.
Social media has undeniably altered audience engagement and growth for media organizations, and along with that shift, journalists’ personal identities and their voices have become both increasingly amplified and scrutinized. Besides the scrutiny, however, many journalists have adopted masses of dedicated followings, boosting them to the status of online fame.
Vox editor-at-large Ezra Klein and The New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman are just two examples of the well-known journalists with hundreds of thousands — or, in Klein’s case, millions — of followers, which affirm their informational credibility and influence.
The bot phenomenon, however, is not just restricted to journalists. Many artists, politicians and entrepreneurs have capitalized on this commodified fame, allowing them to expand their agenda and appear more influential than they claim to be.
For online influencers who are being paid to promote products, these actions could be found fraudulent by the companies paying them. But for those seeking to increase social capital for the growth of their careers or businesses, bots still fall into a legal gray area that remains undisputed.
Terry Nguyen is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science. She is also Features Editor for the Daily Trojan.