We live in an era when we are both connected to the people of the world and to smoke and mirrors. Social media is bringing the world together and making it possible to connect with people we never would have before, but it’s also an illusion in a lot of ways. The current United States president enjoys sharing his thoughts via Twitter and his tweets have a large impact on the world so let’s focus on how to tell what is real on social media, specifically Twitter, and what is not.
First, let’s talk about bots. What is a bot? A bot is an account that seeks out and analyzes web content and then publishes content in an automated script much faster than a person.
In the case of Twitter, a bot is a Twitter account that automatically tweets, likes, follows, retweets, or direct messages other accounts. Bots are used on Twitter to increase follower count which is often used by businesses to get advertisers to believe they have a large audience. Donald Trump’s Twitter account has been accused of using lots of bots as followers.
Then there are fake accounts – these are created and managed by real people but they are not who they claim to be. Our dear leader Trump himself recently made the mistake of retweeting a fake account, so even he, with his social media support staff paid by our tax dollars, cannot navigate what is real and what is not real on Twitter.
One might say it’s a nearly impossible task for Trump to find someone on social media who actually likes and respects him who also knows how to read and write so the act of retweeting a real supporter is a very difficult task. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. Sometimes it’s not.
So let’s talk about how to be savvy when navigating Twitter. Does a specific tweet or Twitter account seem off to you? Find out if it’s real.
- Go to the account page and look at it. Do they have a profile picture? Do they have a cover picture? Do they have a written bio? Do they have followers? How many accounts are they following? If there is no profile picture and no bio, they are not being followed at all or by many accounts and if they haven’t tweeted much, or their tweets seem to all be on one topic, the account was recently created, these are signs it is probably a bot or fake account.
- If a Twitter account has close to the same number of followers as it is following, this is a social media hack known as “follow back.” The idea is you will follow back any account that follows you so you all can get more followers and seem like bigger influencers. There are also companies outside of Twitter that you can pay to get followerswhich are usually accounts held by people whose entire job it is to add followers to people who pay them. Sometimes bots are created and they all follow each other. So just because an account has thousands or even millions of followers it does not necessarily mean that that is a real following of real people. Quantity does not equal quality. The same thing happens on Facebook with Facebook pages – fake accounts are often created to “like” and “follow” Facebook pages.
- The blue check mark that is supposedly used to show an account is “verified” to be authentic on Twitter is not exactly an exact science the way those check marks are distributed. When I did social media for Wikipedia, I had a very odd time getting the check mark on the official Wikipedia Twitter account. When I initially contacted Twitter to ask them for the check mark, the person I spoke to wanted to make a deal and requested that Wikipedia add the “share to Twitter” button on every Wikipedia page in exchange for “verifying” the account. Wikipedia has no ads and does not endorse any individual or company, so that was impossible. I finally got the check mark on Wikipedia’s account by arranging a meeting with a coworker at Wikipedia who knew someone in upper management at Twitter and once we explained the situation to her she authorized the check mark right away. It was an unusual process and definitely not an exact science.
So what do we do if it’s all just smoke and mirrors? Should we abandon social media? I say no. Social media brings us closer to all sorts of people we never would have met or had the chance to interact with before. I met my husband in the 1990s on one of the earliest forms of social media, a chat room and bbs called SF Net. I have reconnected with long lost friends on social media. I have helped grow small businesses that didn’t have a huge marketing budget with social media. I have shared thoughts and ideas with real people with a far greater reach than I would have had without social media. Perhaps some clever folks will design a new social media platform that doesn’t sell our personal information or manipulate our feeds or allow fake accounts to be created at an exponential volume and speed (I suggest starting with reading Designing for Evil if this is your ambition).