twitter bots, fake twitter accounts,Twitter’s latest crack down on automated accounts eliminated thousands of followers. Dozens of users complained their accounts were locked until they could verify their phone numbers to prove they were real.

Right-wing users who saw followers disappear in droves accused Twitter of targeting them because of their political beliefs.

“Twitter’s tools are apolitical, and we enforce our rules without political bias,” the social network responded in a statement to Gizmodo. “This is part of our ongoing, comprehensive efforts to make Twitter safer and healthier for everyone.”

Fake accounts are an extensive problem on Twitter and other social media platforms. Some researchers have estimated that robot accounts (bots) managed by automated software instead of a human represent 15 percent of Twitter users, or 48 million accounts. They account for a disproportionate 50 percent of the site’s content. PR and marketing professionals active on Twitter probably also have at least some fake followers.

The Media’s Fake Follower Problem

Ultra-conservative pundits and influencers aren’t the only ones with tons of fake followers. Publishers, including well-known media companies, also have thousands of bogus followers. PR professionals examine the number of followers when considering media pitching strategies, but the lack of integrity of that metric should now give them pause.

PR once first considered a publication’s circulation and sometimes its advertising revenue when estimating its importance. Those figures are difficult to manipulate.

After media went digital, the number of followers became a leading metric for judging the importance of media outlets and journalists. Yet unlike circulation and revenue, follower numbers may be largely bogus.

Followers: A Leading Media Metric

“If Nielsen were supplying numbers and it turned out 15 percent of those numbers were made up of non-human bots, we would drop Nielsen as a rating system,” Ren LaForme, digital tools reporter at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, told Quartz. “Social network numbers are being used by people as a mark of credibility. If significant amounts of those users are fake, that undermines the credibility of both the news organization touting the numbers and Twitter itself.”

Publishers can’t control who followers them, but they can help fight the bot problem. Because bots account for a substantial portion of Twitter’s conversation, publishers and PR professionals can pressure the network to combat the bot problem. In addition, they can refrain from pushing their staffs to increase their followers. Under pressure to gain followers, some journalists and PR departments succumb to purchasing fake accounts. Chicago Sun-Times film critic Richard Roeper, a writer for The Hill, a contributor to Breitbart, and an editor at China’s state-run news agency, have been accused of purchasing followers, according to Quartz.

It’s essential for PR to scrutinize the followers of media outlets and journalists before planning media pitching strategies. Learning the telltale signs of bot accounts such as incomplete or suspicious profile information, incoherent tweets, and few followers can reveal Twitter users with large numbers of questionable followers. Online apps like Twitter Audit can ease the task.

Bottom Line: Twitter’s recent controversial purge of automated accounts, known as bots, highlighted the extensive problem of fake followers. While problem may seem to afflict mostly right-wing Twitter users, some observers warn that mainstream media publishers have large numbers of bot followers, a situation that may worry many PR professionals.