Manipulating public interest is one of the oldest tricks in marketing books. I remember when a friend of mine first opened a coffee shop, he would call us every day to hang out at his place. “Get your friends too. I need to make this place look busy!“, he’d say. And it worked. A couple of months later he bluntly asked us to stop hanging at his place because he needs the tables for real customers. (Cheap bastard!)
But faking influence has taken a whole new meaning on the interwebs. The Middle East’s Twittersphere was abuzz last week with what has now become the biggest social media scandal the region has witnessed so far.
The debacle started when a Saudi Twitter user who also has a lot of time on his hands – Abdulrahman Al Kharashi – grew suspicious of the dramatic surge of followers of some famous Saudi Twitter users and concluded that they have bought their followers. That does not mean that they paid users to follow them; it means that those following them are bots (short for robots), not real human beings. There are companies that offer services like selling followers. To prove his point, Al Kharashi went and bought Twitter followers, which sent the number of his followers from 600 to 210,000 followers in a couple of days! The process is now being called “egg-buying”, in reference to the unhatched egg in the display pictures of most of the bots.
One particular Saudi Muslim scholar who was prominently featured in Al Kharashi’s alleged findings is Mohamad Al Arefe. A couple of months ago I came across his Twitter feed and I clearly remember that he had a little over a million followers, which was astonishing to say the least considering that his fame hardly goes beyond the geography of the GCC. Fast forward a few months and that number has more than doubled and now stands at a whopping 2,453,032 followers! Whoa!
In my humble opinion, that is very strange and begs suspicion for a number of reasons:
- The Sheikh never tweets in English and only posts in Arabic which would obviously limit his audience to those who understand the language.
- The Sheikh tweets mostly about religion, which would again limit his audience.
- Let’s assume that Mr. Al Arefe’s popularity reaches beyond the realms of the Gulf, and let’s also assume he has followers from Kuwait all the way to Morocco, he still wouldn’t have 2.3 million followers. Simply because all Twitter users in the region combined do not add up to more than 1.3 million users!
- And of course more importantly, because there are online tools now that give you the exact percentage of your fake and inactive followers. My followers (and I only have a 1,137 of them at the time of writing this post) are 82% “Good”, meaning they are active and not bought. Al Arefe on the other hand has 28% of “Good” followers!
- You can’t but rub your chin in doubt when you see the people mentioned below with millions of followers, while Wael Ghonim, for example, the man who basically kicked off the Egyptian revolution with 619,000 followers, and world renowned women’s rights activist Manal Al Sharif, who started the Saudi women’s rights to drive debate, with 115,597 followers! That is not to say these numbers are bad, but the 2.4 million is ridiculously high.
I know I’m picking on Al Arefe here, but that’s because if those accusations are true that means the Sheikh has no respect to people’s intelligence and that is not what a role model does. Others accused of buying followers include: Dr. Salman Al Odah, a very famous Saudi Muslim scholar (1,515,339 followers); Ahmad Shugairi, show producer and presenter best known for his Ramadan program Khawater (1,621,405 followers); Aaidh Al Qarni, Muslim scholar, author and plagiarist (1,616,324 followers), Turki Aldakhil, Saudi journalist and author and host of Al Arabiya’s Eda’at program (747,753 followers), Battal Al Goos, Saudi sports presenter (738,871 followers), Abdulrahman Bin Mosaad, a Saudi poet and president of Al Hilal FC, Fahad Albutairi, Saudi comedian (436,242 followers).
The scandal has made it into several prominent media outlets (Al Eqtisadiah, Al Hayat, Al Arabiya, Al Sharq, Al Jazirah, and many others. It even prompted a Saudi cleric to label the unethical practice of egg-buying as sinful. A cleric issuing a fatwa forbidding other clerics from buying followers? It’s all too strange!
In another article Al Arabiya quoted Dr. Fayez Al Shehri, a Digital and Social Media expert, as saying: “A number of famous Saudis and GCC nationals from different interests are resorting to wrong methods in order to increase the number of their followers“.
But mind you, most of those on the list are famous in their own rights and have a great deal of following in their communities and among their fans, and it could be the case that some of those have been genuinely followed by many people. I personally follow Ahmad Shugairi because I believe his teachings are moderate and are a source of inspiration.
Even Al Kharashi who started the fracas said: “I’m not saying every one of them is buying followers, but what I am doing proves that there are large numbers of fake followers for many celebrities“.
So I turned to my friend and social media expert Khaled El Ahmed, better known as Shusmo. Khaled refused to join the Twitter debate because he believes the accusations are baseless. Here is the Q&A that followed:
Who-sane: So how likely is it that those Twitter celebrities referenced in the articles above have bought their followers?
Shusmo: Very unlikely. The article is not valid. It is true some can buy their followers, but those listed are legit.
Who-sane: But how can Mohamed Al Arefe have 2.4 million followers when (according to the Dubai School of Government’s statistics) there are only 1.3 million Twitter users in the world?!
Shusmo: The number of active users in the Arab World is 1.3 million, whereas the registered number of users far exceeds this number.
Who-sane: How reliable is http://fakers.statuspeople.com? According to their website, @TamerHosny has %24 “Good” followers, does that mean he bought the other %75?
Shusmo: The articles are all based on this bogus app. No third party app can scan all your followers. It is simply “APImpossible”. Faker can only read a sample of the last 500 records of any given account and build assumptions on it. And as it says in its About Us, this method proved accurate for anyone who has 10,000 followers or less
So there you have it, some strongly think it is indeed a scandal worth exposing and those involved should at least apologize to their followers for deception and faking influence, and some believe that those people were targeted for different reasons, but whatever the truth is, it sure does smell eggy.
What do YOU think?
P.S: Eid Mubarak! Kol 3am w ento bkhair!