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Lies, Dumb Lies, and Richard Roeper’s Twitter Following

The film critic was one of many public figures outed last week for purchasing Twitter followers, and has since been suspended by the Chicago Sun-Times. But is his pursuit of bigger numbers a meaningful sin, or just an inconsequential, vanity-driven blunder?

EBERTFEST 2015 - 'A BRONX TALE' - Post Screening Discussion
Film critic Richard Roeper, left, and producer Jon Kilik
Photo by Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images For EBERTFEST 2015

On Saturday, The New York Times blew up Richard Roeper’s spot. The Chicago Sun-Times’s long-standing film critic was one of many named in a Times piece exploring “the follower factory”: a bustling marketplace of fake Twitter followers called Devumi, whose clients, the Times alleged, include many notable figures in sports, media, entertainment, and beyond like Ray Lewis and John Leguizamo.

Many of those named in the Times report rushed to deny their involvement in the purchases, blaming unscrupulous assistants or suggesting the surges were merely personal experiments. On Tuesday, Roeper became the first to have an employer publicly respond to the fake follower allegations, with the Sun-Times announcing that it wouldn’t publish any of his work until the newspaper finished an “investigation” into his Twitter following.

The Times story is a great exploration of a dark and thriving corner of a leading social network, but there is also a sense that it is much ado about nothing. As Alex Pareene put it: “This Times Twitter story seems like an enormous amount of editorial firepower aimed at something that is funnier than it is important or troubling,” he wrote on—where else?—Twitter, “but it’s described as important AND troubling anyway to justify the format.” Many of the Devumi accounts have since begun to disappear from Twitter, and on Wednesday, The Hill—employer of columnist Joe Concha, who was also named in the Times report—announced a new policy forbidding staff members from purchasing fake followers.

Still: The only world in which Roeper’s suspension makes sense is one in which the Sun-Times takes Twitter much more seriously than it ought to. Does the paper think a writer’s Twitter following dictates how many clicks the writer will generate? It shouldn’t; click-through rates across the platform are abysmal. Does the paper correspondingly think that follower numbers should dictate other things—like pay, maybe? If the goal is to pay writers by the traffic they generate, there are much better metrics (like, uh, actual traffic). There could be something more behind the scenes: Maybe Roeper used his social following to negotiate a raise.

But short of those things, the only reasonable conclusion is that the Sun-Times views Twitter—an independent, fraud-ridden social network—as a deeply important arbiter of its writers’ success. And if it does think that—well, that’s the Sun-Times’s own fault for drinking the aughts-vintage Kool-Aid.

By the network’s own admission, Twitter follower counts are poor indicators of the actual number of people who follow a given account. Some estimates suggest that about 15 percent of all Twitter accounts—almost 48 million accounts—are automated. On Wednesday, I ran a Twitter Audit Report of my 11,346 followers, of which the service reported that about 96 percent are the profiles of real people (<3 you, all my non-robot pals). But that still leaves 374 bot accounts that somewhere along the way fastened themselves to mine. How? And why? Someone, somewhere set them up, for some reason. To try to legitimize themselves by following non-paying customers? I don’t know, and the odds are good that I never will.

Buying bots isn’t the only less-than-reputable method of inflating Twitter followings. In one common tactic, a user deploys an automated tool to follow the daily Twitter maximum of 1,000 users—real ones—each day in the hope that those users will in turn follow them back. If they don’t, the tool eventually unfollows them and moves on to others. Because many users reflexively follow people back, the result is a quick surge in followers. (You can often—but not always—spot a practitioner if their robust following sits alongside a mark showing that they follow 5,000-plus accounts.) I’ve watched in TweetDeck’s activity column as fellow writers used this method, often in the dead of night, when they are less likely to be spotted by peers. I once unfollowed an editor whose following binges kept filling Tweetdeck; I promptly received an email from him—clearly, the follow-back generator was not the only reputational Twitter tool he was using—asking why. He insisted he had stopped the binges without acknowledging why he was doing them in the first place. He’s since gained upward of 10,000 followers.

This is fine, really. If you want more followers, whether they’re bots or politely reciprocal human strangers, you can go right out and get them. If a higher count makes you happy, then by golly, go with God. It’s a little shady and, less charitably, maybe a little bit desperate—but hey, live your life however you like. Buy yourself a big, fake diamond and tell everyone it’s real, and later go home and giggle about how impressed everyone was. Why not?

The problem comes when other people—or other organizations—take those numbers, which even in the very best of times are flimsy and poor indicators of just about anything beyond “time invested on Twitter,” too seriously. If influencers—the Times cited the model Kathy Ireland, who uses Twitter to promote corporate endorsement deals and whose Twitter following was more than tripled last year using a bot service—are able to trick companies into thinking they have more sway than they do, that’s on those companies for not doing their due diligence. If a newspaper sees a big number on Twitter next to one of its critics’ names and thinks that represents the quality of the critic’s work, then it’s asking to get duped.

Roeper’s apparent quest for followers is silly in the extreme. But it’s not nearly as silly as the Sun-Times thinking that Twitter followings mattered much in the first place.