Journalists buying followers on social media isn’t trivial. It’s unethical and it matters.

Kurt Gessler
Feb 1, 2018 · 5 min read

The most surprising wrinkle in the New York Times’ piece The Follower Factory wasn’t the existence of this dark industry. And it wasn’t that some in the media paid for followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Without doubt, the part that grabbed me the most was the apathy some took toward this practice.

In the immediate murky backwash, the Sun-Times swiftly suspended columnist Richard Roeper, one of the individuals referenced directly in the story.

“We became aware over the weekend of issues relating to Rich Roeper’s Twitter account,” Sun-Times editor Chris Fusco said via email. “We’re investigating these issues. We will not be publishing any reviews or columns by Rich until this investigation is complete.”

With the Sun-Times investigation ongoing, we should reserve full judgment. We have the NYT’s reporting tying Roeper to Devumi, a company built around “accelerating your social growth.” He was the lead name under NYT’s “Media” list.

You also can look at tools like Twitter Audit, which suggests Roeper has more than 125,000 fake followers of his 224,000 total.

“Thumbs up” for 128,653 fake users.

Roeper has not commented on the issue.

But the issue really isn’t about a single columnist like Roeper. The central question many in the media was grappling with was simple: Just how big a deal was this? Does it matter that Richard Roeper might have paid a company for followers like @Sidy06266084 or @fdsfdsf30499949?

Buying followers isn’t specifically addressed in many social media policies and guidelines. I suspect it will be more common now, especially with the Sun-Times setting the precedent that it’s a suspension-worthy, investigation-worthy offense. The closest that the Chicago Tribune might currently have is this:

“Editorial and news departments also may work with marketing, promotion, creative, circulation or other departments to improve readership and financial success, but they should never do anything that might jeopardize the integrity of the news report.”

So, does buying followers jeopardize the integrity of the news report? Some said no, and briskly waved off concerns.

Personally, I can think of four somewhat interwoven reasons why I find it troubling, why it does undercut your journalistic integrity.

Journalists are in the truth business

You are being inherently dishonest in buying followers. You’re trying to deceive someone, whether it’s the public — “Look at all the people that follow me. You should, too” — or your boss — “Look at how I’ve grown my social media footprint. I deserve a raise or a contract extension.” No one buys followers just because it’s fun. There’s an end game. Some level of purposeful deceit is part of that action. Without doubt, it’s damn hard work to build any kind of social following. It’s also hard work to tell a good story or make a great photo. The person who would take a shortcut and buy fans might be a person willing to take other shortcuts.


It leaves a stain on more than just you

Speaking of integrity, how do you think your employer looks when it’s revealed that you bought those followers? It doesn’t just impugn your reputation, it affects your company’s brand as well. Was your employer neglectful in not monitoring your social media behavior? Or, even worse, did it encourage its journalists to be deceitful in manner? Did this person’s coworkers also buy their Facebook friends? Trust is a fragile commodity.


It’s no different than falsifying your resume

When I hire people, I look at their social media accounts. Their activity. Their fluency with the language and platform. The engagement on their pages. And yes, even their followers. Let’s say the Tribune were hiring a Bears beat writer and we had two equal candidates, say Jane and Jen. Jane had 500,000 Twitter, Facebook and Instagram followers and Jen had 500. Could that be a point of differentiation? Unquestionably, yes. There’s pressure in 2018 to have a robust social media following. It equates to tips and trust and traffic. That pressure, whether in Hollywood or the media, is why services like Devumi exist.

But in the end, buying followers is like lying on your resume. You’re giving the impression you have a stronger, more loyal audience than you’ve actually earned. You’re implying that you worked harder than your peers and cut through the social media noise and created a relationship with people.

But just like padding a resume, it never ends well. Fake followers don’t equate to higher engagement, no more than putting Python on my Linkedin page makes me a web developer.


You’re supporting a shady industry based on trickery

If you pay someone $20 for 5,000 Twitter followers on the social media black market, where is your money going? What industry are you furthering with your investment? Let’s find out.

Buy Twitter Followers Reviews is a clearinghouse of many sites like Devumi, which happens to be ranked №1. At №3 is CoinCrack, where 1,000 Twitter followers will cost you $9. CoinCrack’s motto is refreshingly honest — to help you “appear massively popular online.” Note: Just “appear” not “become.” Oh, but they’re having problems I see.

Twitter has been causing quite a bit of trouble lately, expect delays. New Twitter Follower orders have been disabled until things cool down.

CheapFollowersLikes.org also seems knowledgeable, especially in the benefits of a strong Instagram strategy.

It always will be good to your business if you have and buy instagram followers. To get a lot of boons of using instagram you should need to get lots of instagram followers.

Yup. All of that seems totally legit and reputable and something that I’d want to affiliate myself with professionally.


So is buying followers “harmless one-upsmanship” or “plastic surgery” for platforms? Absolutely not. On its surface, it lacks the basic integrity of the profession. It’s dishonesty that benefits the journalist and no one else. The intent is to deceive. And it serves to commoditize what should be a genuine relationship between a journalist and the public.

But hey, if none of that matters, I’m sure there’s a batch of Sidy06266084s ripe and ready for purchase.

Kurt Gessler

Written by

Director of Editorial Ops at @ChicagoTribune et al. I also teach stuff at @UNLincoln @Unl_CoJMC. Practicing journalism et sic per gradus ad ima tenditur

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