The question — rarely confronted by news organizations before — became relevant this week after the New York Times revealed that the practice of padding individual follower counts is widespread. The newspaper said dozens of prominent people, from entertainers to athletes to politicians, bought Twitter followers from a Florida-based bulk seller in a quest to appear bigger and more popular on the platform.
The story prompted the Chicago Sun-Times to suspend its well-known movie critic, Richard Roeper, who was among the people the Times said had bought millions of dormant or artificially generated followers from the company, known as Devumi. The Sun-Times didn't explain or detail its decision except to say it wouldn't publish anything further by Roeper until it completed an investigation of his social-media activity.
News organizations have detailed policies regulating their journalists' behavior on social media. The basic rule: Don't post anything on Twitter or Facebook you wouldn't say in your professional output, on a news broadcast or in a story. And yet, buying followers typically hasn't been addressed. Among others, NPR, The Washington Post and the Associated Press say they don't have an explicit rule against it, although padding one's follower count would likely violate general rules about maintaining "credibility" and "transparency," according to both organizations. The New York Times, which investigated the practice for months, didn't spell out its own policy in its article.
On one hand, a follower count artificially inflated by bulk purchases leaves a false impression to anyone encountering the person's tweets and comments. It suggests that the person is far more influential and is reaching a far wider audience than he or she actually is.
In certain cases, it can be outright fraud; companies sometimes pay "influencers" — celebrities with massive followings — thousands of dollars to make an occasional product plug or favorable mention to their flock, which would violate journalistic ethics. If an "influencer" cooks the books to make his or her following appear larger than it really is, the companies are paying for something illusory.
But it's not clear that Roeper, who appeared for years on a syndicated movie-criticism program with fellow critic Roger Ebert, did anything more than stroke his own ego by packing his follower count (currently 224,000) with an undisclosed number of phantoms and phonies purchased from Devumi. The Times reported that it was able to buy 25,000 followers from Devumi for $225.
"Purchasing social-media followers is sad, but I don't think it's a clear ethical violation," said Andrew Seaman, chairman of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists. "General dishonesty and misrepresentation is a cause for concern, however. I think anything like this is justification for a news organization to ask: What else is this person misrepresenting?"
Seaman adds a bit of context to Roeper's story; he points out that Roeper isn't a straight news reporter, but "lives in the gray zone between celebrity, journalist and commentator," offering opinions rather than hard facts. "We should still demand honesty, but be realistic about our expectations," he said.
But there's not much gray in this issue for Kathleen Bartzen Culver, who directs the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin. She likens it to a newspaper inflating its circulation figures: A falsified follower count can falsely induce real people to follow someone they might otherwise ignore.
"It violates the bond of trust and accuracy" between a journalist and readers or viewers, she said. "Buying followers is misrepresentation. Even one purchase [by a journalist] is wrong. It's wrong across the board."
Culver adds that news organizations bear some responsibility for this by encouraging and sometimes rewarding journalists for having large social-media followings. By doing so, news organizations implicitly create the conditions for follower inflation, she said.
In the wake of the Times story, an editor at one publication frankly admitted that it had ulterior motives in cooking its follower count. Micah Uetricht, associate editor at the magazine Jacobin, said the publication bought followers to impress Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whom Jacobin was hoping would write an article for it.
"Backstory there is pretty funny: we got the idea to have Kareem Abdul-Jabbar write for us but thought our reach might be too small for him," Uetricht tweeted. "So we bought about a thousand followers to hit a nice round number, to try to impress his agent."
But other publications were caught by surprise. Among the journalists identified by the Times as buying followers from Devumi was Joe Concha, a reporter and columnist for the Hill newspaper in Washington. The Hill's editor in chief, Bob Cusack, said the publication wasn't just unaware that Concha had bought about 5,000 followers in early 2017 — it was unaware that it was possible for anyone to do so.
"Now that we know about this, we'll prohibit it," Cusack said. He doesn't intend to discipline Concha, whom he said has apologized for the purchase.
Concha declined to comment for this article but said on Twitter that he bought the followers on the recommendation of a friend, a social-media expert, "to enhance [my] brand." He described it as "one-and-done" and later seemed to dismiss the value of the practice: "Net-net: nobody cares if you have 47k or 42k followers."
In the meantime, Concha wrote that he has blocked almost all of the followers he bought.