As of last Friday, Mitt Romney’s Twitter account had about 690,000 followers. That’s more than you or me (oh, hush, John Dickerson), but it’s a paltry number compared to that of Romney’s opponent: @BarackObama boasts some 18 million.
On a typical day in the past month, Romney’s Twitter account has gained 3,000 to 4,000 new followers, according to Zach Green, whose blog 140elect.com tracks campaign-related Twitter trends. So when Romney’s follower count began growing by the thousands on Friday evening, Green took notice. In a post titled, “Is Mitt Romney Buying Twitter Followers?”, Green pointed out that Romney’s account added over 100,000 followers over the weekend, for no apparent reason.
Liberals on Twitter jumped on the case, noting that many of Mitt’s new fans appeared to be fake—spambots, pornbots, and accounts set up purely to inflate other accounts’ follower count. One of the more amusing finds: At least five of Romney’s newfound followers shared the same profile picture, which turned out to be that of an Internet marketer named Ben Sarma. (Sarma has thanked his lookalikes for the flattery but asked them to remove his visage from their accounts.)
Was Romney’s campaign buying Twitter followers? It’s not inconceivable, but it seems unlikely. The campaign has certainly been paying Twitter for promoted tweets—though that's a legitimate advertising practice meant to attract genuine followers, not bots, and doesn't usually lead to such a rapid spike. There are services out there that offer to artificially pump up your Twitter following for a price (including some that pay real people to follow certain accounts). And if a former Newt Gingrich staffer is to be believed, Romney’s campaign wouldn’t be the first to avail itself of that option. (Gingrich campaign officials denied the charge, though an analysis of his followers seemed to substantiate it.)
In Romney’s case, though, the apparent spike in fake followers has seemed to delight his opponents, while offering little benefit to his campaign. (Even after the surge, Romney’s follower count pales next to Obama’s—and unless those fake followers find a way to vote, it’s hard to see how they help in an election.) The “who gains?” question has given rise to another theory: Some Obama supporter surreptitiously bought the followers on Romney’s behalf, to make him look bad.
That sounds almost as bizarre, but it is true that the fake followers play into some Obama-friendly narratives: that Romney is uncool, that he can’t connect socially to real people, that he relies on his riches to buy success. The follower kerfuffle even spawned a hashtag, #morefakemitt, which liberals are gleefully appending to tweets such as, “Guys, Mitt Romney isn't buying fake Twitter followers. Bots are just following the candidate they have most in common with.” The Romney campaign has insisted to Buzzfeed that it isn't buying followers, and we'll have to assume that's true. No matter what the price in cash, bumping the candidate's follower count past 800,000 certainly was not worth the political cost of prompting tweets like the one below.