How I bulked up my Twitter following by spending just ₹455
Last month, I decided to see what happens when one buys Twitter followers. The task turned out to be simpler than buying a book online.
One online transaction, and boom, my three-day-old account posting bland missives on interior design had 1,015 followers. But, like love, money can’t buy you living, breathing followers. What I had were bots that inflated my follower count without caring for my opinion. Like air in a bag of potato chips, they made my following look full. But one little shake, and the rattle told the whole story.
To start, here’s what I did — I created an email address and Twitter account. Wanting something safe and apolitical, I went for an account on home décor tips. The profile picture for @TheHome_Project was of a friend’s room, and the cover photo was a picture I clicked at a café. Next, a Google search with permutations of “buy Twitter followers in India”. I was spoilt for choice.
Celebrities, politicians among clients seeking fake followers
One agency stood out for its no-nonsense approach. It offered Twitter and LinkedIn followers, Facebook likes, search engine optimisation (SEO), Wikipedia article editing, social media marketing and more for an upfront fee. I am withholding the name of the agency as its head requested anonymity.
I signed up for a package of 1,000 followers on the website. There was no check for my email address and Twitter account linkage. I could have easily gifted new Indian Twitter followers to Taylor Swift, if it struck my fancy.
The charge on my card was for Rs 455, but the bill generated was in US dollars. By now, I had begun posting links to random articles on interior design. After a day in which I requested three reluctant friends to follow the account, my followers swelled to 1,015 (the other 12 accounts were presumably genuine followers).
There was a peculiar pattern to these followers. Most had their display names in the Devanagari script. Their handles were a random string of alphanumeric characters forming no intelligible words. Hardly any had posted tweets. Even more curiously, many followed the same three middle-rung politicians of the AAP, BJP and Congress, a mix of Punjabi pop artistes, government institutions, and assorted celebrities.
The bought bot attention was short lived. My followers began to drop. On February 8, I had over 1,000. By February 15, I wrote a hurt email to the agency: the count had dropped to 742. I was assured of a “refill”. By February 19, it was 528. “Ongoing twitter update causing drop…we will refill in few days,” came the reply to a second email.
I then signed up on a service calledto see where my lost followers had gone. It put together a list of the handles that had left me in the digital lurch (just 300 followers now). Many of the handles were “restricted” for “unusual activity.”
The “update” referred to Twitter’s newfound enthusiasm for cracking down on fake accounts. “The use of any form of automation to post identical… content or perform actions such as Likes or Retweets across many accounts… is not permitted,” Twitter said on February 21after it made changes to its API or code. Fake accounts made headlines last year after US intelligence agencies discovered Russian-controlled social media accounts had tried to influence the 2016 elections in the country. Twitter admitted to finding 50,000 such accounts following an internal investigation.
Last year in South Africa, a social media campaign using fake Twitter accounts trended hashtags like #RespectGuptas to whip up support for a powerful business family accused of corruption and manipulating government policies. The campaign was orchestrated by a PR firm employed by the family, and reportedly ended up fomenting racial tensions.
I now wrote to the agency formally, asking to speak with a representative for this story. The head was the person who had been responding to my customer care emails. My followers were bots, he told me, and had I called him before placing my order, he would have advised me against it. “The follower count drops and people complain,” he says.
Is Twitter’s crackdown going to be bad for business? Not really, he says. “Bots are popular because they’re cheap. They have been in demand for the last two years,” Arshad (name changed), who has been running his agency from a UP satellite town for three years, told me. SEO is among his most popular products, and his clients include celebrities, models, politicians and others “looking for fame”. There are some unlikely contenders too: “Doctors from Delhi and Dubai have bought packages to appear higher in ranking for medical tourists.”
It takes a bit of offline work too. Having a client appear on webpages categorised as news by Google helps. Ever the businessman, he says, “Could you name my company in another article? That way, it will come in the news list and the SEO ranking will improve.”