In September 2011, as the then editor of Dataquest, I wrote an editorial, The Opportunities and Threats of Facebook Democracy. While Dataquest was one of the first publications to do a cover story on how social media was effectively used in the fight against corruption earlier that year (in April), and had celebrated the new power that social media had given to the common people, in this editorial, I had warned against attaching too much importance to the voice emanating from social media by the leaders and policy makers. My reason, of course, was the low penetration of social media. In a large diverse democracy, jumping into conclusion based on what a small section of people belonging to a particular socio-economic section say, was a potentially dangerous and suicidal thing to do, I argued.
The reason I called it Facebook Democracy was that a lot of the campaign by India Against Corruption was actually carried out on Facebook. It was the main mobilization platform.
Since then, Twitter has been used by politicians very effectively to drive their messages. Many politicians and political parties have taken professional help for that purpose. All of us know the power of #pappu and #feku campaigns. While penetration of Twitter is still miniscule compared to the size of Indian electorate, some politicians have managed to have a very large fan following, going up to more than a million. And there are at least ten Indian politicians on Twitter who have more than a lakh followers. Considering that not more than 100 million Indians are online, those numbers are not unimpressive.
Unimpressive they may not be. But as it turns out, most of these followers are fake.
Social media management platform maker, Status People, actually provides a way to check your (and others’) fake followers. I actually checked out the the fake followers of the top ten Indian politicians on Twitter by number of followers and checked how many fake followers they have.
And can you imagine what the average looks like?
It is 59%.
That is, as much as 59% of the followers of these politicians on Twitter are fake. And typically, the bigger the number of followers, the bigger is the percentage of fake followers, though there are small exceptions.
Here is the table.
|Politician||Twitter Handle||Total Followers||Fake Followers (%)|
|Dr Manmohan Singh||@pmoindia||538323||55|
|Derek O Brien||@quizderek||149448||38|
The numbers are as on 1st May 2013
And here are some realities.
- Narendra Modi, the potential PM candidate of BJP, heads the list in terms of percentage fake followers, with 65% of his followers being fake.
- As many as 8 of the 10 in this list have more fake followers than they have genuine followers. Derek O’ Brien and Subramanian Swamy have the lowest percentage of fake followers in this list.
What Does This Mean?
This, of course, does not suggest that politicians are doing something deliberate to create fake profiles/followers. And since there is not much to choose between different parties, it is not a political statement that one is making. In fact, many politicians themselves will be shocked to know this.
For that matter, there is not too much of a difference between politicians and other celebrities when it comes to the percentage of fake followers. I did check that for a couple of them. In case of Amitabh Bachchan, 73% Twitter followers are fake. For Shah Rukh Khan, that number is 70%. But in case of celebrities, it is a reaching out to the fans, so it does not matter how many fans follow them.
For politicians too, it is a great platform to get their message across, engage with media and at least a certain section of people, who are using this medium. The problem begins, when, their PR managers try to make us believe that they are great leaders because of the large fan following. That is when we get it completely wrong.
In fact, fake followers is just one part. The above platform, Status People, also measures how many of the followers are inactive. For each Twitter profile, it divides the followers into three parts: fake, inactive and good. When you take just those followers that it terms are good (who are real and active), the total followers number drops drastically. Here is the above list of politicians with their “good” followers.
|Politician||Twitter Handle||Good %||Good Followers|
|Dr Manmohan Singh||@pmoindia||16||86132|
|Derek O Brein||@quizderek||22||32879|
The numbers are as on 1st May 2013
So, in effect, Shashi Tharoor’s active are just 1.75 lakh Twitter users, not 1.75 million. The prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has just 1.5 lakh followers, not 1.5 million. Varun Gandhi just has 15,000-odd active followers.
In short, these numbers denote their actual sphere of influence. Except for Tharoor and Modi, these numbers are in thousands; in a country of a billion. And when you combine this to the fact that Twitter reaches only a certain class of people, it follows quite logically that extrapolating the influence/opinion of Twitter to the real world is not a great idea. Not yet.