The Ethics of Twitter Pump-N-Dumps

Enter the Twitter Pump-N-Dumpers — accounts that follow, get follow-backs, and then quickly unfollow.

The Ethics of Twitter Pump-N-Dumps - Lioness MagazineWelcome to the age of metrics anxiety.

Each new day brings new us numbers we can track. On Twitter, there are three that are prominently featured: how many tweets have you sent, how many accounts do you follow, and how many accounts follow you. Those numbers may trigger internal judgments about your level of wit or overall popularity. If nobody likes or retweets my statement, was the statement worthless? Am I likeable?

Here’s the problem: It’s extremely easy to display dishonest numbers. Manipulated numbers matter because the public display of metrics changes the behavior of users. Given this, there is a high level of incentive to game the system.

Twitter, for better or worse, is all about power. Comparatively speaking, its less cool cousin, Facebook, has an egalitarian ethos that runs throughout the social network. There is no separation between virtual friends, no gap to indicate that you give more than you get or vice versa. You are friends with someone, or you’re not. A friend request is accepted or denied; if it is accepted, both parties are treated as equals.

People are decidedly not equal on Twitter. Every time you follow a person or brand, it is an opportunity for the other party to display its power. The greater the gap between how many accounts one follows and how many they are followed by, the greater the power level of that account. To be followed by millions and only follow a handful, well, that sends the world at large a clear statement: I’m popular. My social currently is more valuable than yours.

In real life, some people are more popular and powerful than others. Celebrities have more social currency than the regular Joe. It makes sense that they are followed more than they follow back. But on social media, who is a celebrity? Who is popular and powerful?

Without a centralized media to dictate who is and who isn’t powerful, outside of the celebrities you already know from traditional media, Twitter users are left to make those judgments by analyzing the following/follower ratio (barring a blue verification check). It’s used as a barometer, but unfortunately it is ripe for manipulation.

Twitter is not real life. Marketers have taken the concept of “perception is reality” to its logical extreme. If I can alter your perception, do I change the reality?

Enter the Twitter Pump-N-Dumpers — accounts that follow, get follow-backs, and then quickly unfollow. They are pumping and dumping; trying to manipulate the perception you have of them by giving a false sense of their power. It’s an ethically dubious practice where Pump-N-Dumpers are trying to wag the dog, so to speak. Here’s their thinking: “If you buy into my manipulated projection of power online, perhaps that will translate with how you view me in real life.”

This is the very reason that social media is flooded with bots (fake accounts). People are more likely to be popular when they are already popular (Bandwagon Effect), so there is a strong perverse incentive to utilize initial fake popularity to achieve future genuine popularity. Marketers are well aware of this. They may be “hacking popularity,” but they are doing so in an unethical manner.

[The thought process of Pump-N-Dumpers: “Sure we can buy a bunch of bots to up our numbers, but those would be fake followers. We need authentic fake followers!”]

From a marketing perspective, I am a terrible Twitter user.

I follow back everyone (outside of scammers) who decides to follow me. I unfollow people who don’t follow me, based on my personal stance of not liking the one-sided nature of Twitter. It’s a pretty simple formula that keeps me sane. In the process, I have made an array of wonderful connections with people all over the world. That’s the benefit I get from using Twitter: connections and information.

On January 7th I was followed by OneLine Media out of Minneapolis. Cool! I follow-back. Three days later, as I do with everyone, I check them out in greater detail (i.e. click on their main website if the account interests me).

They had already unfollowed me.

Okay, that in itself is rather innocuous. But it made me wonder, “Could I have annoyed or bored someone so much in three days?”

They were Pumping N’ Dumping. I checked the email I had been sent by Twitter on January 7th, which lists the account’s following/followers. Here it is:

January 7, 2014 for OneLine Media: Following 942, Followers 438

January 11, 2014 for OneLine Media: Following 36, Followers 1483

That’s not magic — that’s manipulation.

Just because we can hack popularity, doesn’t mean it is ethical to do so. It is worse than accounts that utilize bots to falsely prop up their numbers. Pump-N-Dumpers are disingenuous to both the public and the accounts that initially follow. You are merely a pawn in their game to project a false sense of popularity and power.

It’s time to stand up to Pump-N-Dumpers by actually calling them out on their behavior. It’s wrong. It may be a social media strategy that currently works, but it is an unethical one. It only works because we’re not shining a spotlight on their dishonest behavior. They should be lumped in with scammers and spammers.

Oh, and they probably shouldn’t be following someone whose handle is @TechEthicist.


David Ryan Polgar - Lioness Magazine

David Ryan Polgar is a digital lifestyle expert who explores our relationship with technology from a legal, ethical, emotional, and sociological perspective. Having a background as an attorney and educator, he brings a unique viewpoint to tech commentary, emerging trends, and as the Communications Director for the startup Copilot Family. Find him on Twitter @TechEthicist.

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