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Originally published Monday, August 27, 2012 at 5:30 AM

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Buy your way to Twitter fans? You bet

It may be the worst-kept secret in the Twittersphere: People with astronomical numbers of Twitter followers may not have earned them through hard work and social networking; they may have simply bought them.

New York Times News Service

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As a comedian, Dan Nainan was blessed with fans, millions of YouTube views and, once, an audience with President Barack Obama. But one thing was missing.

"The number of Twitter followers I had in relation to how many people in the world know about me was woefully inadequate," he said. So in June he bought a small city's worth for $424.15, raising his Twitter follower count from about 700 to more than 220,000.

"There's a tremendous cachet associated with having a large number," said Nainan, 31, adding later, "When people see that you have that many followers, they're like: 'Oh, my goodness, this guy is popular. I might want to book him.' "

It may be the worst-kept secret in the Twittersphere. That friend who brags about having 1,000, even 100,000 Twitter followers may not have earned them through hard work and social networking; he may have simply bought them on the black market.

And it's not just ego-driven blogger types. Celebrities, politicians, startups, aspiring rock stars, reality-show hopefuls — anyone who might benefit from having a larger social media footprint — are known to have bought large blocks of Twitter followers.

The practice is surprisingly easy. A Google search for "buy Twitter followers" turns up dozens of websites like USocial.net, InterTwitter.com and FanMeNow.com that sell Twitter followers by the thousands (and often Facebook likes and YouTube views). At BuyTwitterFollow.com, for example, users simply enter their Twitter handle and credit card number and, with a few clicks, see the ranks of their followers swell in three to four days.

Will Mitchell, the founder of Clear Presence Media, a marketing company outside Tampa, Fla., said that he has bought more than a million followers for his clients, which include musicians, startups and a well-known actress he declined to identify.

"And it's so cheap, too," he said. In one instance, Mitchell said, he bought 250,000 for $2,500, or a penny each.

Fake Twitter followers briefly made the news in July, when Mitt Romney's Twitter following jumped by more than 100,000 in one weekend — a much faster rate than usual. A flurry of news reports purported to expose the practice of buying followers. "Romney Twitter account gets upsurge in fake followers, but from where?" read a headline on the NBC News Technolog blog. (The Romney campaign has denied it bought followers.)

Having fake followers, it is important to note, does not necessarily mean that they were purchased. Unlike Facebook friends, Twitter does not require users to approve followers. Twitter followers are sold in two ways: "Targeted" followers, as they are known in the industry, are harvested using software that seeks out Twitter users with similar interests and follows them, betting that many will return the favor. "Generated" followers are from Twitter accounts that are either inactive or created by spamming computers — often referred to as "bots."

Buyers and sellers see nothing wrong with it. "Buying followers generated by bots is against Twitter's terms and frowned upon by the public," Mitchell said. "However, it is perfectly legal."

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