When people started lauding Twitter’s efforts to “democratize” the platform by excluding political advertisements, I wondered whether you could still buy influence in other ways. You can.
A politician may no longer be able to pay Twitter to boost their message, but they can still pay other people to do the same thing. This has happened for a long time, as the New York Times reported about in an article last year about the “follower factory.” Here is an excerpt:
“In April, The Times set up a test account on Twitter and paid Devumi $225 for 25,000 followers, or about a penny each. As advertised, the first 10,000 or so looked like real people. They had pictures and full names, hometowns and often authentic-seeming biographies.”
As it turns out, you can still do this. I tried it.
After a bit of searching, I found a tool called “Tweet Zoo” that accepted Paypal (not Bitcoin), and I paid $5 for 100 Likes.
The likes were not delivered very quickly, but they did trickle in steadily over the next few days. All the likes were clearly from fake accounts: the oldest account was created on January 4th, 2020; every account had 0 followers and 0 friends; and half of the accounts had less than 10 statuses.
(They also used different and potentially more sophisticated tactics to dodge Twitter’s detection, compared to tactics reported in the Follower Factory article by the New York Times. For example, their handles do not match other accounts and they all used lowercase screen names.)
A week after I made the purchase, my tweet has collected 16 likes from fake accounts, and 6 likes from accounts that follow me, for a total of 22 likes. Intriguingly, Twitter only reports the tweet as having 14 likes, so they know something is going on with the fake accounts.
The fact that I could pay for influence on Twitter matters for at least two reasons: (1) “the inversion” and (2) larger sociopolitical implications. First, the fact that it is still so easy to buy fake likes on Twitter suggests that the internet may be destined for what some call “the inversion,” a concept pointed out in this piece from New York magazine:
“For a period of time in 2013, the Times reported this year, a full half of YouTube traffic was ‘bots masquerading as people,’ a portion so high that employees feared an inflection point after which YouTube’s systems for detecting fraudulent traffic would begin to regard bot traffic as real and human traffic as fake. They called this hypothetical event ‘the Inversion.’”
Paradoxically, even though it seems clear that “everything is fake,” this ability to pay for likes also shows that technological realities are difficult to separate from social realities. Despite well-meaning policies around content moderation and advertising, social media platforms will always be subject to the human factors and sociopolitical dynamics that users bring to the platform.
There may be an upside to this: a recent paper called “Roles for Computing in Social Change” makes the case that social issues such as plutocratic influence can serve as synecdoches. For example, speaking of Virginia Eubanks’ book Automating Inequality, the paper says:
“Put most bluntly, many people would not pick up a book about poverty policy in general — but are game to read a critique of the algorithms used to administer it.”
In the case of buying Twitter likes, many people would not pick up a book about plutocracy in general — but are game to read a critique of social media platforms used to administer it. Lilly Irani makes a similar case, speaking of Artificial Intelligence as a “hook” (synecdoche) for bringing labor exploitation into public discussion. Again, somewhat pathetically, people are much more likely to read an article about labor exploitation if it is somehow connected to Artificial Intelligence.
I hope this short piece can serve as a small effort in this direction. Yes, it is an intriguing technology-related problem that you can buy likes on Twitter. But plutocracy was born long before Twitter, and the wealthy have always been able to buy influence. Maybe, just maybe, this picture of buying influence on Twitter can serve as a synecdoche that spurs discussion about how politicians can still buy influence in U.S. politics.