Can we expect an authenticity backlash after report of fake online followers?

“The Follower Factory” in the New York Times details how many public figures and social media users purchase followers.

The Times reviewed business and court records showing that Devumi has more than 200,000 customers, including reality television stars, professional athletes, comedians, TED speakers, pastors and models. In most cases, the records show, they purchased their own followers. In others, their employees, agents, public relations companies, family members or friends did the buying. For just pennies each — sometimes even less — Devumi offers Twitter followers, views on YouTube, plays on SoundCloud, the music-hosting site, and endorsements on LinkedIn, the professional-networking site.

The actor John Leguizamo has Devumi followers. So do Michael Dell, the computer billionaire, and Ray Lewis, the football commentator and former Ravens linebacker. Kathy Ireland, the onetime swimsuit model who today presides over a half-billion-dollar licensing empire, has hundreds of thousands of fake Devumi followers, as does Akbar Gbajabiamila, the host of the show “American Ninja Warrior.” Even a Twitter board member, Martha Lane Fox, has some.

At a time when Facebook, Twitter and Google are grappling with an epidemic of political manipulation and fake news, Devumi’s fake followers also serve as phantom foot soldiers in political battles online. Devumi’s customers include both avid supporters and fervent critics of President Trump, and both liberal cable pundits and a reporter at the alt-right bastion Breitbart. Randy Bryce, an ironworker seeking to unseat Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, purchased Devumi followers in 2015, when he was a blogger and labor activist. Louise Linton, the wife of the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, bought followers when she was trying to gain traction as an actress.

Devumi’s products serve politicians and governments overseas, too. An editor at China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, paid Devumi for hundreds of thousands of followers and retweets on Twitter, which the country’s government has banned but sees as a forum for issuing propaganda abroad. An adviser to Ecuador’s president, Lenín Moreno, bought tens of thousands of followers and retweets for Mr. Moreno’s campaign accounts during last year’s elections.

The incentives to do this are high: not only can these purchased followers act on the behalf of the purchaser, media accounts regularly highlight the number of friends or followers a user has. These counts are one of the important social markers of status online. If you are not actively trying to boost these counts by multiple means, you are falling behind.

If so many public figures then have purchased followers, then will we see an authenticity backlash? Imagine a scenario where Twitter or LinkedIn offers a special badge that all of your friends and followers are authentic people. Or, public profiles will include an estimate of how many followers are actual users. Then, it is not only about how many followers you have but rather how many are “real” people. The irony may be that even if you have “real” followers, the sort of interactions you have with them in the online realm can be quite different than offline interactions.

Would the public care to have such metrics? News of paid followers has been available for years. (For example, see earlier posts here and here.) Would they act differently toward certain users or profiles if they knew where they came from? In a world full of paid or compensated online reviews, fake followers, and who knows what else (targeted Facebook ads? Google search results just for you?), perhaps we are already past the point of no return.

The problem of archiving the Internet may be just the first problem; how do we make causal arguments from its contents?

Archiving the Internet so that it can understood and studied by later researchers and scholars may be a big problem:

In a new paper, “Stewardship in the ‘Age of Algorithms,’” Clifford Lynch, the director of the Coalition for Networked Information, argues that the paradigm for preserving digital artifacts is not up to the challenge of preserving what happens on social networks.

Over the last 40 years, archivists have begun to gather more digital objects—web pages, PDFs, databases, kinds of software. There is more data about more people than ever before, however, the cultural institutions dedicated to preserving the memory of what it was to be alive in our time, including our hours on the internet, may actually be capturing less usable information than in previous eras…

Nick Seaver of Tufts University, a researcher in the emerging field of “algorithm studies,” wrote a broader summary of the issues with trying to figure out what is happening on the internet. He ticks off the problems of trying to pin down—or in our case, archive—how these web services work. One, they’re always testing out new versions. So there isn’t one Google or one Bing, but “10 million different permutations of Bing.” Two, as a result of that testing and their own internal decision-making, “You can’t log into the same Facebook twice.” It’s constantly changing in big and small ways. Three, the number of inputs and complex interactions between them simply makes these large-scale systems very difficult to understand, even if we have access to outputs and some knowledge of inputs.

In order to study something, you have measure and document it well. This is an essential first step for many research projects.

But, I wonder if even it can all be documented well, what exactly would it tell us about behaviors and aspirations? Like any “text,” it may be difficult to make causal arguments based on the artifacts of our Internet or social media. They are controlled by a relatively small number of people. Social media is dominated by a relatively small number of users. Many people in society interact with both but how exactly are their lives changed? The history of the Internet and social media and the forces behind it is one thing; it could be fascinating to see how the birth of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s or AOL or Facebook or Google are all viewed several decades into the future. But, it will be much harder to clearly show how all these forces affected the average person. Did it change personalities? Did day-to-day life change in substantial ways? Did political opinions change? Did it disrupt or enhance relationships? What if Twitter dominates the media and the lives of 10% of the American population but little impact on most lives?

There is a lot here to sort out and a lot of opportunities for good research. At the same time, there are a lot of chances for people to make vague claims and arguments based on correlations and broad patterns that cannot be explicitly linked.

Facebook’s goal: build community, help people find purpose

This story tracks Mark Zuckerberg’s language about community and the purpose of Facebook. There has been a recent change:

But when 2017 arrived, Zuckerberg immediately began talking about Facebook “building community.” In February, he wrote a massive post detailing his vision to “develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.”

We now know that sometime in late 2016, Mark Zuckerberg directed some new questions at his employees. The company had noticed that there was a special subset of Facebook users, about 100 million of them. These were people who had joined “meaningful communities” on the service, which he defined as groups that “quickly become the most important part of your social-network experience and an integral part of your real-world support structure.”..

This marks the first mention of “meaningful communities” from Mark Zuckerberg. In the past, he’d talked about “our” community, “safe” community, and the “global” community, of course. But this was different. Meaning is not as easy to measure as what people click on (or at least most people don’t think it is)…

But the route to a “sense of purpose for everyone is by building community.” This community would be global because “the great arc of human history bends toward people coming together in ever greater numbers—from tribes to cities to nations—to achieve things we couldn’t on our own.”

I could imagine several possible reactions to this new message:

  1. Cynicism. How can Facebook be trusted if they are a company and their primary goal is to make money? Community sounds good but but perhaps that is what is customers want right now.
  2. Hope. Facebook began in the minds of college students and now has billions of users. This has all happened very quickly and alongside a number of social media options. While traditional institutions (particularly those related to the nation state) seem to struggle in uniting people, Facebook and other options offer new opportunities.
  3. Indifference. Many will just continue to use Facebook without much thought of what the company is really doing or trying to figure out what they can really get out of Facebook and other platforms. They just like having connections that they did not used to have.

Given that the messages on connecting people and community has changed in the past, it will be interesting to see how they evolve in the future. In particular, if Zuckerberg wants to get more involved in politics, how will these ideas change?

Does the population size of the US get in the way?

One idea I’ve had in my mind in recent years is how the population size of the United States interacts with the country’s stated ideals and policies. Is it possible to be the United States with over 320 million residents? When I hear discussions of policy, I am regularly struck by the size of the issue at hand. Healthcare is a good example. Any changes at the Federal level – whether adding to existing policies or retracting what currently exists – would have significant impact on millions of people as well as have a sizable effect on the budget. Additionally, we have multiple layers of government (federal – three branches, state, county, township – not everywhere, municipality, some regulatory and taxing bodies that span these layers) that can sometimes add to the complexity. Furthermore, we are a relatively open society that incorporates many people and comes out with something “American.” We may not be one of the happiest countries in the world but a number of the countries at the top of the list are simply not as socially complex. Indeed, of the 13 countries ahead of the United States, only one is 1/10 the population size (Canada) and the rest don’t come close to that.

On the other hand, we have had an explosion of the Internet and social media that allows us to drill down to individual experience after individual experience. One way to think about social media is that it allows the experiences or opinions of individual actors to reach a wide audience. However, these individual experiences can blur the wider patterns at play. How can we compare anecdotes?

Perhaps the practical question in this: how do we operate between these two scales of a large-scale complex society versus the individual actor? It is not easy to do as either scale has drawbacks and benefits. At the least, it highlights that the “American Experiment” continues, perhaps now less based on our democratic and republican aspirations but more in terms of size and complexity.

The Internet and social media can help us see more small things but the bigger picture is still fuzzy

On one hand, the Internet and what comes along with it allows us unprecedented access to what is going on in the world. Information galore. Bypassing the traditional gatekeepers of the media. Access to millions of stories we might not have otherwise seen or heard.

On the other hand, it is a glut of stories and information. The social media feeds just keep going. The 24 hour news cycle of cable TV news is now an up to the second compendium of events big and small. There is a lot to take in. Some of the research I’ve done with the social media use of emerging adults suggests some have a hard time keeping up with it all. What should we pay attention to?

Going forward, I fear the extra information we now have – an unprecedented amount in human history – isn’t helping as much as it might. This is the case for at least four reasons. First, even though we have more information, we still don’t have all the information. As Max Weber once said, social life is so complex that it is difficult to imagine even social scientists understanding all aspects of social phenomena. Second, we’re not necessarily good as humans or trained well in how to process all the information. Certain things catch our eye – for example, such as information that agrees with what we already think (confirmation bias) – while we see others but they don’t register at all. Third, there is simply too much. Perhaps humans were not made to think at this scale; for much of human history, we lived in relatively small settings and had close relationships with people who were pretty similar to us. See Dunbar’s Number as an example of how the limits of humans comes up against friends and followers on social media.

Fourth, and this is where my sociological perspective particularly comes in, it is difficult work to connect individual level data – what we might call microsociology – with larger societal trends – macrosociology. Take this example: we see a post of involving a person with particular traits leaving no tip for a waitperson which they have posted on social media. Unfortunately, such negative interactions happen frequently. But, are we to take this single example as just an attempt to point out a wrong done by a single customer or does this one event reflect on an entire people group? Or, is a serious weather event on the other side of the world (one we would have had little knowledge about even a few decades ago) evidence for climate change or for deniers? When we are immersed in so many small events and their immediate interpretations, how are we to form big picture understandings of patterns? It requires us to step back and try to make sense of it all rather than simply slotting each small event into our existing heuristics.

Our capacities to deal with all of this information may improve in coming years as it becomes the new normal. Or, some may go another direction – though it is hard to imagine – where they retreat from this information overload. Either way, we’ll need to figure out ways to help everyone see the broader patterns so we all don’t lose the forest for the tees.

Journalist tries to summarize 8% of teens not on social media

Most American teenagers use social media. So, how should a journalist go about finding about those who do not?

Such abstention from social media places him in a small minority in his peer group. According to a 2015 report by the Pew Research Center, 92% of American teenagers (ages 13-17) go online daily, including 24% who say they are on their devices “almost constantly.” Seventy-one percent use Facebook, half are on Instagram, and 41% are Snapchat users. And nearly three-quarters of teens use more than one social-networking site. A typical teen, according to Pew, has 145 Facebook friends and 150 Instagram followers…

Most of the social-media abstainers whom I interviewed aren’t technophobes. On the contrary, they have mobile phones that they use to contact their friends, usually via text. They are internet-savvy and fully enmeshed in popular culture. And they are familiar with social media. They just don’t like it…

For many nonusers of social media, the immediacy of face-to-face interaction trumps the filtered intimacy of Facebook and Instagram. “I do love seeing kids otherwise attached to their phones equalize when they’re cut off,” says Katy Kunkel of McLean, Va., whose four children range in age from 7 to 12. None of them are on social media. Especially during the summer months, she notes, “The kids recalibrate much quicker than adults. They find a tribe, then fun or trouble in trees and creeks…. They are way more active by default.”

The children themselves don’t often feel that they are missing out. Even though “almost 100%” of his friends are on social media, Brian O’Neill says that he can’t recall a time when something important happened in his social circle and he didn’t hear about it. “They let me know if something is going on,” he said. Ms. Furman’s experience is similar: “Sometimes I wouldn’t understand a specific joke everyone was telling, but 90% of the time, it’s not really worth it—it’s just a joke.”

Small subpopulations like this – the 8% of teenagers not using social media – can be attractive to journalists and social scientists alike: what causes them to go against the pervasive social norms? However, studying such small groups is often difficult. Large-scale surveys will not pick up many of them as there aren’t many to find.

This journalist went the route of interviews which can provide more detail but take more time. Still, how do you find such teenagers to interview when they are not easy to track down online? (Well, these teenagers might be active on other parts of the web without being on social media.) Perhaps a snowball sample was used or a quota sample. And, how many teenagers should you interview? The article quotes just several teenagers – perhaps more were interviewed – and tries to suggest that these quotes are representative of the 8% of teenagers not on social media.

Does this article correctly identify the reasons behind why a few teenagers are not using social media? It is hard to know but I’m not too hopeful based on a limited number of interviews with teenagers who may or may not represent those 8%. This may work for a journalist but I hope it wouldn’t pass academic muster.

Reminder of Facebook’s goal: “to make the world more open and connected”

What exactly is the purpose of all these social media sites? A recent letter to a Senate committee clearly lays out Facebook’s aims:

Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.

The rest of the document provides insights into how Facebook selects Trending Topics but the reminder is helpful: the company has broad aims with the goal of having more and more interactions between people around the world. While Zuckerberg has been pretty open about this from the beginning, it is less clear whether this goal is accomplished. My own research with data from the mid to late 2000s suggested users primarily friended and interacted with people they already know or were in some proximity to. If users aren’t making personal connections, perhaps they are more aware of the world through viral videos, news stories, and information that rockets through networks. Does that make the world (1) more open and (2) connected or is there an element of personal connection that also would help?