My Word: Like; like it not

Inflated figures can indicate something more sinister than inflated egos.

March 1, 2018 21:18
A LOGO of Twitter is pictured next to the logo of Facebook.

A LOGO of Twitter is pictured next to the logo of Facebook.. (photo credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION/FILE PHOTO)

Here’s a modern-day dilemma: I have to ask not only “Do you like me?” but “Do you actually exist?” – actually being the opposite of virtually. In a world where “fake news” has become a catch phrase (and a serious catch at that), we now have to worry about fake followers. As if there weren’t enough real problems.

Ever since The New York Times in January broke the story of the big business of fake followers on social media, I have found myself singing the lines from the hit show Evita:

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Remember I was very young then
Thought I needed the numbers on my side
Thought the more that loved me, the more loved I’d be
But such things cannot be multiplied.

Unfortunately, the desire for greater numbers of people to express their approval is not restricted to the young. And the consequences are more serious than just creating big egos without an IQ to match.

The problem is apparently particularly acute in the Twittersphere. I’m not surprised: I find it hard to trust anything with a name like “Twittersphere.”

The New York Times exposé, “The Follower Factory,” noted: “These accounts are counterfeit coins in the booming economy of online influence, reaching into virtually any industry where a mass audience – or the illusion of it – can be monetized.

Fake accounts, deployed by governments, criminals and entrepreneurs, now infest social media networks.”

As Ian Bogost astutely pointed out in The Atlantic: “The problem with Twitter – and with social media in general – isn’t that influence can be faked. It’s that it is seen to have so much significance in the first place.”

The fake follower issue has many faces, all of them ugly. There are people, including politicians, journalists and entertainment celebrities, who buy followers to boost their appearance of importance and clout. And there are businesses and private individuals who have learned the golden rule that the more followers they have, the more money they can earn from sponsored material. Teenage Instagram and YouTube stars use their platforms for open and covert advertising, a new twist on earning both fame and fortune.

Aviv Aldo, founder of Trueffic, told The Jerusalem Post’s Amy Spiro last month, “Our most popular service in Israel is definitely Instagram. Young girls who want to be social-media stars are our biggest customers.”

But the business also lends itself easily to a form of child abuse, in which cute toddlers and kids can be (and are) exploited on camera for revenue-generating You- Tube clips.

Apparently it doesn’t cost much in financial terms to buy followers, although the social costs can be high. Problems include false advertising and identity theft, which is part of the cybersphere territory. And I can’t help but wonder about the long-term effects on the mental health of an adolescent constantly seeking approval from people they don’t even know.

Cashing in on the trend, the Israeli satire show Eretz Nehederet (A Wonderful Country) has developed the character of a hapless, flabby keep-fit instructor, trying to lead exercises in a public park, obsessed with the number of followers he has. But it’s no laughing matter.

Fake accounts, or bots, can give a morale boost to those with low self-esteem (or even those with the normal desire to be liked) but they can build or ruin reputations with equal ease – and automated accounts do not suffer from pangs of conscience, or a conscience at all.

Not everything can be quantified.

Inflated figures can indicate something more sinister than inflated egos.

As Slate writer Jacob Brogan noted, when some personalities and businesses discovered the extent of their false followers, they were contrite and deleted them. Others didn’t bother with the bots. “On a site where popularity is a question of statistics, fake fame may be less embarrassing than real obscurity,” Brogan conjectured.

There’s a difference between illusion and delusional. Of course anyone (any real person, that is) who uses social media is manipulating the way he or she “sells” themselves. Few people post pictures on Facebook showing what passes as a disastrous day, from bad hair to dirty floor. If they do, it’s usually an appeal for sympathy.

At a national and international level, the political manipulation made possible by the combination of fake news and fake followers can have devastating ramifications.

Neither Left nor Right can afford to be complacent. It is not ironic that countries like China and Iran, where there is no free access to social media, use these platforms to disseminate selective information. It’s malicious and pernicious.

THE EXISTENCE of fake followers is not new. In 2013, for example, the UK’s Channel 4 Dispatches program focused on the “click farms” of Bangladesh where poorly paid workers spend hour after hour in poorly lit rooms creating “likes,” “followers” and fake fans. Previewing the program, The Guardian noted “click farms exploit a different sort of computing power altogether: the rise of cheap labor paired with low-cost connectivity to the Internet.”

The “click industry” together with ever more sophisticated technology capable of creating hard-to-detect avatars means that soon it will be difficult to differentiate between who is real and who isn’t.

When Facebook recently asked users to share information “to help your friends get to know you,” I pointed out that “if they’re my friends they already know me.”

But it’s getting harder to tell. There are a lot of false identities out there.

According to the New York Times investigation, one US-based company has provided customers with more than 200 million Twitter followers. Tweeters tend to flock together, it seems.

“Money can’t buy you love,” as the Beatles noted all those years before the dawn of the Internet age, but money can buy you “likes.”

Spiro’s report in the Post mentioned the company that claims to analyze what percentage of any account’s followers are real. According to the site, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the most followed Israeli on Twitter after Gal Gadot, has 68% real followers.

In view of the speed with which ever more investigations surrounding his name are launched, I feel there is fodder here for at least a good Eretz Nehederet sketch, if you follow my line of thought. Or just follow me in general.

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