President Donald Trump loves to brag about his Twitter following. As more revelations brewed around the Trump campaign’s possible involvement with Russia, Trump tweeted on June 17 about his overall social media following: 100 million strong, or so he claims, and Twitter of course being his favorite method of communication
A quick glance at Trump’s actual number of Twitter followers tells a different story, however; while president brags of about 34 million followers, the truth is far different. According to an analysis by Socialbakers in June for CNN Tech, one analytics tool estimates that 11.6 million of Trump’s 32 million Twitter followers are either dormant or accounts run by bots.
“The analysis run by Twitter Audit, which estimates how many of an account’s following is made up of real people, gave Trump a 40 percent audit score and found that about 20 million of his followers are fake. Status People, another site that rates the authenticity of Twitter followers, found that 5 percent of Trump’s followers are fake and another 91 percent are inactive.
That Trump seemingly has more fake followers than real ones can be attributed to the existence of bots, an umbrella term referring to accounts with no profile picture and no tweets. A quick scroll through the most recent followers on the @realDonaldTrump account shows a number of accounts with Twitter’s default profile picture and no tweets, that seemed to have joined Twitter very recently.
Amassing bot followers is fairly easy. One only has to pay a certain amount of money, and voila, one has an instant bump in following count. A New York Times article by Nick Bilton describes the social media bot industry as a “giant pyramid scheme” often used by big-name brands, A-list celebrities and regular people seeking a “social media ego boost.”
Of course, Trump is not the only famous figure to have fake followers or bots. Politicians like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama also have bots following their verified Twitter accounts. The rub is that Trump’s account seems to have a larger number of bots and presumably fake accounts than any other politicians on Twitter—in comparison, Barack Obama received a 90 percent audit score from Twitter Audit, Hillary Clinton was given a 52 percent audit score and Sen. Bernie Sanders garnered an 89 percent score.
According to the Washington Post, academic research in 2016 found that bots supporting Trump “massively outperformed the bots supporting Clinton” by a 5 to 1 margin days before Election Day. The research paper found that 81.9 percent of “highly automated” accounts carried some form of pro-Trump messaging.
The fact that so many of Trump’s followers are ghost accounts made solely to amplify the president’s message should undermine his own unabashed boastfulness that he’s speaking to 100 million people each time he goes on one of his uncensored and often deleterious tweetstorms. But if the president has one quality that is painfully obvious, it is his penchant for attention and his constant hunger for validation; it’s his whole brand. Those millions of Twitter followers and hundreds of thousands of likes and retweets serve as Trump’s affirmation, a co-sign from the public that he is indeed popular and powerful. After all, Trump has built his entire career, including his rise to the presidency, on popularity and a brazen wielding of power whenever it suits him.
If Trump is aware of the bots and fake accounts he has spawned, he’s done a fairly good job at hiding it. Of course, even if Trump were aware of his pooling of bots, he would decry these reports with his favorite phrase: “fake news.” For a man whose ego is so fragile that he would even fabricate his own inauguration audience numbers, Trump needs those tens of millions of followers so much that he’ll even throw out a number like 100 million just to assert his dominance without even a simple fact check.