by Christopher Johnson
New York Times reporter Hiroko Tabuchi and other popular writers in Japan have thousands of fake followers on Twitter, an investigation has found.
A search on http://www.statuspeople.com found that Tabuchi and a number of her associates on Twitter had a higher percentage of fake or inactive followers than most other Twitter users.
A search on August 27 showed that of Tabuchi’s 63,686 followers at that time, only 64 percent could be confirmed as real people, not so-called “bots” or fake or inactive accounts. About 12 percent of Tabuchi’s followers (roughly 7500 followers) were fakes, and another 24 percent (about 15,000 followers) were inactive accounts, according to the site’s results. This indicates that in reality, Tabuchi only has about 40,000 real followers on Twitter, not 63,000 as claimed.
The results raise questions about Tabuchi’s credibility as a reporter for the New York Times, one of the world’s most respected sources for news. Tabuchi and New York Times editors have not replied to multiple requests for comments about Tabuchi’s behavior on Twitter.
Tabuchi, perhaps the most popular English-language reporter in Japan, has a history of exaggerations, denials, misleading tweets, and unethical behavior on Twitter, including making false allegations and then blocking people to prevent replies in self-defense. Earlier this year, she tweeted that she won the Pulitzer Prize, without mentioning that she apparently only contributed one interview and two quotes to a 9-part series involving several NYT reporters.
A fair and balanced examination of Tabuchi’s ethics, role in media and quality of her journalism is a matter of public interest because she’s perhaps the most popular journalist among foreigners ever to emerge from Japan. She’s a high profile reporter at the New York Times, America’s “newspaper of record”, giving her a privileged position to influence society. She uses her status on Twitter and with the New York Times to shape public perceptions of Japan, and her opinions and reports have impacted the careers of many Japanese executives and politicians, including an ousted mayor of Tokyo. She’s also a shining example of how her generation uses social media to attain notoriety and career success.
Several recent news articles in the New York Times and other media have noted how Twitter users purchase dubious accounts in order to pad their totals and fabricate legitimacy and popularity. Many users buy fake accounts to create the impression of having large followings, which then attract real followers to jump on the bandwagon. These users then delete the fake accounts, but retain the real users, who had no idea they were fooled at the outset.
A number of sites offer thousands of Twitter followers for low prices. It’s not clear if Tabuchi actively purchased Twitter followers, or if thousands of spam accounts have targeted her specifically, and not other popular reporters in Japan, who have much lower percentages of fake followers.
This reporter conducted an investigation in response to tips from sources who asked to remain anonymous because of their work relationships with Tabuchi.
A comparison of several Twitter users in Japan raises questions about Tabuchi’s account in particular.
A search for AP Tokyo reporter Yuri Kageyama found only 3 percent fake followers, and 9 percent inactive accounts, compared with Tabuchi’s totals of 12 and 24 percent. Kageyama follows 13,252 people, and is followed by 14,744 followers, thus indicating she has active two-way relationships on Twitter with real people.
Tabuchi, meanwhile, seemingly has a rather one-sided relationship with most of her 63,686 followers. She only follows 4200 people, or one out of every 16 accounts who follow her. A quick search of Tabuchi’s account finds a large number of “followers” who have made no tweets and have little or no followers. (see screenshots throughout this story.)
Tabuchi has often chatted on twitter with three users, William H. Saito, Noah Smith and Chico Harlan, whose accounts also have large numbers of suspicious followers.
The search results showed that only 38 percent of @whsaito’s 102,000 followers were “good”, while 45 and 17 percent were fake and inactive. Saito, 42, born in Los Angeles, is a respected consultant, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and adviser to several government ministries in Japan, according to his page on wikipedia. The site says he’s a published author and also chief technology officer of an independent investigation commission into the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Noah Smith, a New York-based professor who blogs about finance in Japan, has only 55 percent “good” followers, and 15 and 30 percent fake and inactive followers, according to StatusPeople.com.
The search found that Chico Harlan, a Washington Post reporter who covers Japan from his base in South Korea, had 11 percent fakes, 29 percent inactive, and only 60 percent proper followers.
Tabuchi, who has publicly insulted and threatened this reporter on Twitter, allegedly persuaded Harlan, Smith, and other Japan-based journalists to block this reporter on Twitter.
Tabuchi follows a number of accounts of trolls specifically targeting this reporter. An account, @cjglobalite, created specifically to harass this reporter, has 68 percent fake and 21 inactive followers. The account suddenly gained 1000 followers in August, indicating a suspicious attempt to pad totals and create “legitimacy”.
The search found the following percentage of fakes and inactives:
–QuakeBook editor Dan Ryan, 2, 14 inactive.
–QuakeBook editor OurManInAbiko, 5 fake, 15 inactive
–Google Japan manager Eido Inoue, 0 fake, 8 inactive
–Tokyo Vice author Jake Adelstein, 8 fake and 21 percent inactive
–Guardian stringer Justin McCurry, 7 fake, 21 inactive
Since Saito and Tabuchi can communicate fluently in Japanese, their tweets appeal to a much larger pool of Twitter users in Japan than English-only foreigners, who are a tiny minority in Japan. This would also make Tabuchi and Saito more vulnerable to Japanese spammers, as well as dubious English-language accounts. Yet AP’s Kageyama, who is also bilingual and appeals to the same audience groups as Tabuchi, has a much lower percentage of fake and inactive accounts.
In a 2010 interview with James Hadfield of Tokyo’s Metropolis magazine, Tabuchi said: “Twitter’s a great way to keep up with the buzz on the street, and you get instant feedback on stories and ideas. I don’t think you can be a good journalist any more if you don’t tweet.”
“Print media needs to experiment, experiment, experiment,” Tabuchi said. “I’m such a conventional reporter in a way, it’s definitely a challenge to reprogram myself for new media. But it’s clear that if we continue to do just ‘print journalism,’ we’ll soon be out of jobs.”
When Hadfield asked how she obtained 4000 more followers than he had on Twitter, she replied: “Followers in the thousands—that’s so tiny in the Twitterverse!”
The search site Japan Status claims its results are reliable.
“We now, depending on the size of your follower base, grab up to 100,000 follower records and assess 1,000 of them across that base,” the site’s London-based founder, Rob Waller, said in August last year. “This increases the accuracy of our App significantly. In fact it means that now 97% of the Twitter accounts checked will return an accurate set of scores. It also means that even Justin Beiber and Barack Obama can get a decent idea of how many of their followers are fake.”
The site says it can identify fake and inactive accounts by the unusual lack of tweets and followers.
“On a very basic level spam accounts tend to have few or no followers and few or no tweets. But in contrast they tend to follow a lot of other accounts.”
The site says its search results are important because “there are a growing number of Fakers out there. People who buy followers in a vain attempt to build legitimacy. “Look at me I have 20,000 followers, I must know my…” They are essentially trying to game the system and it’s important for you to be able to spot them, and steer clear of them. Because ultimately if you’re willing to lie about how many friends you have you are not a very trustworthy individual.”
The website Digitaltrends says that many people pad their totals to get jobs or build reputations. “People really, really like getting new Twitter followers. Sometimes it’s just about stroking egos addled with some instant gratification social media affords, but other times it’s at least a semi-practical aspiration – as insane as it sounds, people get jobs thanks to their Twitter acumen.”
“You can’t go from zero to Justin Bieber on Twitter overnight without a little black magic, and in the Twitter follower business, this means resorting to some underhanded tricks to pump up numbers.”
Jason Ding, a researcher with Barracuda Networks, told Digitaltrends about how sneaky sites, such as “Fast Followerz”, allow users to pad their totals on a daily basis to avoid detection and even fool search engines on Status People. They even offer a “5-year warranty”.
In April this year, the New York Times said that Italian researchers Andrew Stroppa and Carlo de Micheli found more than two dozen sites who sell an estimated 20 million fake Twitter accounts, often delivered in batches of hundreds or thousands. One site sells 1000 followers for $5. Sites prefer to sell fake accounts to multiply buyers, thus making them appear more “authentic.”
“Far from slowing, the market for fake Twitter followers seems to be taking off,” Nicole Perlroth wrote in the New York Times. “In many cases, high-quality false Twitter accounts are nearly impossible to discern from the real thing. Those that sell them claim that they can make up to a million dollars in one week.”
Sites prefer to sell fake accounts to multiply buyers, thus making them appear more “authentic.”
“The most coveted fake accounts tweet (or retweet) constantly, have profile pictures and complete bios, and some even link to Web sites that they claim belong to them. But in many cases, a close look reveals that some of the accounts were set up purely to retweet material from specific sites.”
Twitter spokesman Jim Prosser told the Times that Twitter is trying to fight the major suppliers of fake and malicious content. In 2012, the company sued people behind five of the worst spam attacks on the site.
“It’s a hard problem,” Prosser told the Times. “Forty percent of our user base only consumes content. What looks like a fake account to one individual could actually be someone who is on Twitter purely to follow people — like my mom, who follows me and my brother, doesn’t have a profile bio and has never actually Tweeted herself.”
Michael Lissack, a commenter on the Times site wrote about how he gamed the system by paying for 30,000 followers and then following about 1000 important people. “In return over the next two days roughly 400 of those “people who mattered” had followed me — in part I am sure because my Twitter account said it had over 10,000 followers. Over the next two weeks Twitter killed off all of the fake followers BUT I retained the real followers who might not have paid any attention EXCEPT for the initial batch of fake followers.”
“It is NOT about spam. It is about purchasing “legitimacy” quickly.”