As part of its earnings report in 2019, Twitter acknowledged its daily active user count for the first time – 126 million accounts. Although a far cry from the 1.2 billion daily users logging into Facebook, Twitter may have a different dilemma where its user base is concerned: bots.
Reports have found that bots (or fake accounts) comprise roughly 15% of Twitter users, driving more than 2 in 3 links published to the site. Regardless of the platform, though, bots present a major complication.
In 2018, Twitter admitted to expunging 50,000 fake accounts from the site, linking them to Russian users aiming to influence the 2016 presidential election and claiming the posts reached nearly 678,000 Americans.
President Trump is well-known for having an extremely high percentage of fake followers, but is he alone as the U.S. prepares for the 2020 presidential election? For a closer look at how bots have infiltrated the social media platforms of all the candidates (including eight potential vice presidential picks for Joe Biden) vying for the White House, we analyzed the millions of accounts following nine high-profile Democrats and Donald Trump on Twitter and Instagram. Read on as we break down which Democrats have the highest number of fake followers and how their bot activity compares to that of President Trump.
Padding the Numbers
There seems to be no question that bot accounts on social media (run by autonomous computer programs) proliferate a high volume of political content – often designed to influence users on hot-button issues ranging from gun control to immigration. What remains to be seen is how effective fake social media accounts are at swaying the populous at large.
Popular hashtags escalated by fake users continue to demonstrate the power of amplifying a message through what some researchers have dubbed a “misinformation network.” For example, Brexit in the U.K. was heavily favored by fake accounts on Twitter, and Russian-based accounts were found to propagate the #ReleaseTheMemo campaign following the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting.
Of the 10 Democratic social profiles in this study, three had the highest percentage of fake followers on Instagram and Twitter: Hillary Clinton (36%), Joe Biden (almost 35%), and Kamala Harris (31%). Among Vice President (and Democratic nominee for the 2020 election) Joe Biden’s 6.2 million Twitter followers and 2.4 million Instagram followers, more than 1 in 3 users (2.6 million) were not real people.
Two other Democrats also managed to amass more than 1 million fake followers: Kamala Harris (1.8 million) and Elizabeth Warren (1.9 million). Both women have been identified as potential short-list candidates for Joe Biden’s vice presidential pick.
Still, no politician currently in contention or conversation for the 2020 election has a higher percentage or volume of fake followers than current President Donald Trump. Nearly 60% of his 82 million followers on Twitter and 20 million followers on Instagram have been identified as bots, accounting for nearly 60 million accounts following him on social media.
Boosting Twitter Engagement
There are several reasons why fake social media accounts exist. In some cases, they’re designed to help boost visibility for a particular (and sometimes politicized) message. In other cases, they may be used to help inflate the total number of followers an account has to make them seem more popular or influential. Occasionally, fake accounts are created by real people for online giveaways or sweepstakes. While amassing a high volume of followers may seem like a simple way to judge whether your brand is successful, experts suggest having too many fake followers can damage your online reputation by reducing overall engagement.
On Twitter, Joe Biden (almost 43%), Michelle Obama (nearly 40%), and Hillary Clinton (39%) had the highest percentage of fake followers. More than 1 in 3 Twitter followers were also fake for two other potential Democratic vice presidential candidates: Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. While Stacey Abrams has less than 745,000 Twitter followers, roughly 21% of those were identified as fake accounts.
With more than 82.1 million Twitter followers, Donald Trump currently has more followers than either Joe Biden or any of the Democratic vice presidential hopefuls, although 56.3 million accounts (more than 70%) following Donald Trump were identified as fake.
Fake Followers on the Grid
On Instagram, the allure to pay real money for hundreds or thousands of fake followers isn’t uncommon. Embedded links in Instagram stories are only available for users who have amassed 10,000 followers or more, and links are typically seen as an important tool for monetizing the platform. In 2018, Instagram announced that it would take action against fake accounts and any third-party tools that users might utilize to boost engagement. And while Instagram may not have released an official number of the total number of fake accounts purged, it did acknowledge deleting fake accounts and the “likes” and comments they may have left behind.
Donald Trump may rule supreme with his number and percentage of fake followers on Twitter (Trump has more fake followers than Joe Biden has followers in total), he wasn’t the worst offender on Instagram. While nearly 3.5 million fake accounts follow Donald Trump on Instagram, that accounts for just 17% of his 20.4 million followers.
Of the nine Democratic profiles, more than 1 in 5 Instagram followers were fake for three of them. Kirsten Gillibrand (25%), Hillary Clinton (23%), and Michelle Obama (21%) had the highest percentage of fake followers on Instagram. Michelle Obama had the highest number of fake Instagram followers overall (8 million), followed by Donald Trump (3.5 million) and Hillary Clinton (1 million).
Twitter: Donald Trump vs. Joe Biden
Former Vice President Joe Biden may not have nearly as many followers as President Trump, but he doesn’t seem to have the same issue with bots, either. Of Biden’s 6.2 million Twitter followers (at the time of this writing), 43% were identified as fake accounts.
Monitor Their Engagement
Use this chart to sort through both 2020 presidential nominees and all of the potential vice presidential picks to see just how many of their Twitter and Instagram users are fake, according to our analysis.
Race to the White House
For the 23 remaining candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, social media is a tool that cannot be ignored. Social media as an advertising tool is worth millions to many candidates, and many campaigns look to social media to raise money as well. Among the requirements for qualifying for each round of the debates is the total number of donors, making the “Donate $1” social ads extremely valuable in some cases.
However, a candidate’s popularity on social media may not always be what it seems. Many candidates have millions of fake followers across their Twitter and Instagram audiences, in some cases accounting for a quarter or more of their total followers. And while no major politician had more fake followers on Twitter than President Trump, several (including Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden) had amassed their own fairly large audience of bots.
For the candidates still standing in the 2020 presidential election, social media is a tool that cannot be ignored. Social media as an advertising tool is worth millions to many candidates, and many campaigns look to social media to raise money as well. Among the requirements for qualifying for each round of the debates is the total number of donors, making the “Donate $1” social ads extremely valuable in some cases.
However, a candidate’s popularity on social media may not always be what it seems. Many candidates have millions of fake followers across their Twitter and Instagram audiences, in some cases accounting for a quarter or more of their total followers. And while no major politician had more fake followers on Twitter than President Trump, several (including Joe Biden and Michelle Obama) had amassed their own fairly large audience of bots.
Using a list of Democratic vice presidential hopefuls, we compiled their Twitter and Instagram handles – the ones specifically used for their presidential run – and then used Sparktoro.com/fake-followers to audit their Twitter profiles and Modash.io to audit their Instagram profiles to determine follower quality. Using a combined total of followers on both platforms and the combined total of estimated fake followers, we were able to create a combined overall ranking. The accounts were analyzed in late May and early June of 2020.
Fair Use Statement
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