There are websites, such as Fiverr.com, that sell 1,000 Twitter followers for as low as $5. And it isn’t limited to Twitter users.

So where do all these fake followers come from? For the most part, they are purchased. With websites like Twitter, Facebook becoming important mediums for political communication and citizen engagement, there has been a spurt in online start-ups that allow anyone to purchase “real, active” followers for a few dollars.

There are websites, such as Fiverr.com, that sell 1,000 Twitter followers for as low as $5. And it isn’t limited to Twitter users. First Step Promotions (http://www.firststeppromotions.com/about-us/) offers 500 Facebook likes for $15, 5000 YouTube views for $9.99, and 500 Instagram followers for $5.

However, Twitter followers remain the most sought after, say industry insiders.

“Twitter followers are a very sought-after service...in general we have most people purchase between 5,000-10,000 followers, but we have had orders as large as 250,000 followers,” says John Galtman of Buy More Followers.

But are these followers real or are they computer-generated bots?

“Usually at the base level, followers are created by computer. Higher levels are real people from around the world, above that are targeted people based on geographic area, or based on areas of interest,” says Mr. Galtman.

Perhaps Facebook and Twitter too recognize these problems do not bode well for them, not at least if both social media companies wish to enjoy their dominant position as an online hub for government-citizen engagement and political discussion.

New tools, features

Facebook India, for instance, has come out with tools and features that will not only “create increased awareness of the voter registration process” but also “produce grassroots momentum and engagement”, according to Ankhi Das, Head of Public Policy, Facebook India.

The idea is simple. The social-networking company has rolled out a ‘Register to Vote’ feature for its Indian users. All that the users have to do is to navigate to their respective timeline and add as a life event that he/she has registered to vote, thereby sharing his/her story about when, where or why they decided to register to vote.

While critics point to the fact that this will also increase Facebook’s value as a potential political advertising forum, analysts stress that could lead to more debate and discussion.

In an interview with The Hindu, Ms. Das points out that Facebook is looking to tap into the power of social sharing, which helps rally people around causes, build communities and increases general participation.

“Facebook’s new feature will further motivate voters to exercise their fundamental right in the upcoming Lok Sabha Election. Not only will it educate people about resources such as how to fill Form 6 on the Election Commission website, but we anticipate it will inspire young men and women to get involved on issues of governance and voter apathy,” she said.

More importantly, India is the first emerging-market country for which Facebook has launched this key application.

Micro-blogging service Twitter, on the other hand, already has a head-start in the political engagement and advertising race. Not only have senior politicians ‘certified’ themselves on the platform, the service and its feeds have made inroads into national television networks.

Twitter did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Nevertheless, the problem of ‘fake followers’ and the social media marketing companies that make them possible are not part of some shady, underground industry. In fact, at $300 million a year, it is serious business and is completely legal.

Italian security researchers Andrea Stroppa and Carlo De Micheli, were probably the first to bring this “underground economy” as they call it, to light.

In their paper “Twitter and the Underground Market”, the duo estimate that fake accounts make up for about four per cent of the Twitter user base.

More In: Comment | Opinion