When Jerzy Buzek was sworn in as president of the European Parliament in 2009, “his Facebook presence was between zero and a few hundred [fans],” said an official close to the Polish MEP.
This poor performance lasted a few months into his mandate. Initially, there was only a minor increase in the number of people "liking" him on the popular online social network.
But this changed rapidly. In a month's time, the number of "likes" on Buzek’s Facebook page shot up from a few thousand to nearly 40,000.
This sudden rise in popularity was certainly helped by Buzek's increased visibility as president of the European Parliament, a post he held until earlier this year. But the real reason behind it is to be found in some advertising tricks used by his aides.
“We run a few advertising campaigns,” explained a Parliament official, adding that similar efforts were made to improve Buzek’s presence on Twitter and Flickr.
“An advertising campaign on social media can cost a few thousand euros and can increase the number of followers by several thousands in a short period of time,” says another European Parliament official.
A widespread trend
The efforts deployed by Buzek's team to boost the European Parliament's online audience are in fact nothing new.
“In two big campaigns we managed to increase the number of ‘likes’ by dozens of thousands,” says a Parliament official who, as others quoted in this article, preferred not to be named.
The system works in a simple way. A user interested in boosting her or his Facebook presence can buy ads which are then placed on the side of Facebook profiles of thousands of users. Once exposed to the ads, some users ‘like’ the advertised profile. It costs them nothing, but increases the reputation of the ‘liked’ account.
It is also possible to target specific users to maximise the effectiveness of the advertising campaign.
“We often targeted friends of friends, or people with an interest in politics,” an official recounts. “To make it cheaper, sometimes we targeted non-EU citizens in countries where campaigning is cheaper,” says one political party official.
The campaigns helped the Parliament become one of the top public institutions worldwide for the number of Facebook fans, “only behind the White House and Unicef,” said a Parliament official.
Political parties run advertising campaigns as well. The European People’s Party (EPP), for instance, had around 20 in recent years. “During campaigns, the number of fans on Facebook increased by a thousand a week, while our natural growth is between 100 and 200 weekly,” said an official.
The dark side
None of the tricks used by Parliament are illegal or deceiving. They are all legitimate means of involving citizens and fostering public debates. Moreover, the budget for such campaigns is usually small in comparison to most other promotional activities carried out by European institutions. Often the money is taken from off-line campaigns, shifting advertising from the press to social media at no extra cost to taxpayers.
However, as the number of fans and followers on social media becomes a gauge to assess reputations, communication experts might be tempted to use questionable methods to boost online profiles.
One easy trick is to hide a ‘like’ behind a Facebook advertisement. If clicked, it will automatically transform the unaware user into a fan.
Much more controversial methods involve the actual purchase of fans or followers. Many websites offer this option. Against a little amount of money, a user can buy thousands of fake followers or fans, which are usually generated by specialised software.
No Parliament official, amongst those interviewed, admitted that such tricks had been used by European institutions.
Tricks in the private sector
Public institutions are not the only ones to study new ways of bringing traffic to their online profiles. In the private sector, the trend is much more widespread. If public bodies run campaigns to build their image, companies are lured by possible economic advantages.
The price that investors around the world were ready to pay to buy Facebook shares last month shows how attractive a company with limited revenues but a massive online presence can be.
Many consider fans and followers as potential customers who can be easier targets of ad campaigns. Having a big audience matters, as followers attract others and their numbers become a measure of success.
What’s the value of a follower?
These online tactics were pioneered by large companies and for some of them, buying followers has now become commonplace.
A recent study by Marco Camisani Calzolari, a professor at the IULM University in Milan, shows that almost half the Twitter followers of some top companies are fake.
Using an algorithm to assess whether a Twitter account is run by a person or by a computer, and focusing on companies with more than 10,000 followers, the research shows that around 46% of the accounts following the profile of the computer outlet Dell were fake.
“By paying only 50 dollars, I bought 50,000 followers on Twitter and 6,000 fans for my Facebook account," said Calzolari. "I went to a website called seoclerks.com, but there are many which offer the same service.”
According to the Italian academic, famous consumer brands like Coca-Cola, Pepsi and BlackBerry have between 13% and 16% fake followers.
“At last, we can reopen a scientifically founded debate on the economic value of the social media audience,” said Calzolari. “The number of followers is no longer a valid indicator of the popularity of a Twitter user, and can no longer be analysed separately from qualitative information.”
The Italian academic says the trend has largely been triggered by web agencies or public affairs agencies hired by companies to boost their online popularity.
In Brussels, most public affairs firms have added digital campaigns to their standard range of services and some have made it a leading selling argument. "We believe that digital is the way forward in European public affairs and this is part of our contribution to making that happen," reads a disclaimer on http://publicaffairs2point0.eu, a blog hosted by the public affairs team of Fleishman-Hillard.
Communication agencies like the Reputation Squad in Paris have specialised in raising the profiles of celebrities and top company executives. On its website, the firm says it can "intervene at every stage of a social web strategy", including services such as "community management" and "implementation of operations" with a measurable "return on investment".
“Many of the companies included in the research have delegated their public relations activities on social networks to third parties," Calzolari said.
"In some cases, the web agency or media centre executives have chosen to take shortcuts in order to demonstrate to unaware companies that their activities have been successful by generating lots of new users,” he said.