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Sustaining trust

Twitter has purged many suspicious accounts but it needs to do more

There are a few ways of getting “followers” on Twitter. If you are already popular offline, you just need to sign up and announce to the world that you are on Twitter. If you aren’t, go the old-fashioned way of working hard at building a following — tweet regularly on topics of interest, and engage with the platform. You may succeed.

There’s one other way. All you need to do, as a recent investigation by The New York Times showed, is pay money to a marketplace for followers. You then get fake automated accounts to be your followers. It’s easy. But you know it’s a fraud.

Many political leaders, movie stars, sportspeople, celebrities, and writers — whose fortunes are directly linked to their perceived status as influencers — seem to have taken this route although they must have had an organic following in the first place.

The Follower Factory,” as the article’s headline puts it, is “an obscure American company” called Devumi, which has, to date, provided its users with 200 million “followers”. And these are from the significantly smaller stock of 3.5 million automated accounts that it has created. Devumi surely isn’t the only outfit peddling “followers”.

Should we be surprised? Is this simply the desire in humans to appear bigger than they are, doing whatever it takes to get there? Tech, as usual, is an enabler. In more practical terms, this is what happens when someone decides to game a system, especially one that’s influential.

Twitter is that platform which has been consistently punching above its weight on matters of influence, doing what it does with a user base of just 330 million in an age where billion-plus seems to be the magic mark. The de facto news breaker that it is, Twitter sees active participation by news organisations and therefore what happens here is amplified everywhere else. So, it pays to be seen as having influence here.

Despite all its clout, the social network made its first-ever quarterly profit only recently. Analysts, who credit the profit primarily to smart cost measures, are concerned that it isn’t adding enough users. Ironically, at a time when it ought to be looking to boost its user numbers, it has been forced to look at booting out the fake ones in its midst. This has also come close on the heels of Twitter, as also Facebook and Google, being scrutinised for the alleged meddling by Russia in the U.S. elections through their platforms. Twitter reacted by purging many suspicious accounts, but more needs to be done.

Twitter is more than 11 years old and has evolved at many levels over this time – from being a platform for status messages to becoming a personal marketing channel; and from being an outlet that anti-government protesters used to organise themselves to one which officialdom loves. All through, its ability to influence has been its currency, and it knows well that it can’t afford to let trust issues destroy this.

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Printable version | May 29, 2020 2:45:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/sustaining-trust/article23163976.ece

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