(See update at bottom.)
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has been bragging about how many Twitter followers he has: 1.3 million followers to the bookmakers’ favourite Mitt Romney, who has less than 63,000.
Gawker wrote citing an unnamed staffer saying Gingrich bought most of these followers and that they’re fake accounts.
It seems highly unlikely, however, that someone could build over a million fake accounts just to follow one politicians and not get caught by Twitter’s spam team.
Here’s the simple explanation: Twitter added Gingrich to their “Suggested User List”, back in 2009.
When new users sign up, they’re shown accounts that are suggested to follow. Nowadays these accounts are filtered by interest by an algorithm, but for a long while the suggested list was an arbitrary, human-curated one, and it was known to be able to boost someone’s follower counts into the millions.
So that’s the most likely explanation.
So no, Gingrich probably didn’t buy over a million Twitter followers. But yes, it’s likely that most of these followers aren’t “real” in the sense of people who actively chose to follow Gingrich as opposed to being prompted to do so by Twitter’s sign up system.
Update: a report from an analytics startup says 92% of Gingrich’s followers are fake. So maybe it’s not just the Suggested Users List.