This is because they do not exist. They have been fabricated en masse and added to the account by a company that sells fake social media followers to anyone looking to bolster an online reputation. Barrett says that neither he nor his team had any knowledge of or involvement in buying his followers and an internal investigation has been launched.
His Twitter account soared from 330 followers on June 28 to 17,014 by July 9, adding more than 1,000 accounts every day. By comparison none of the other candidates in the Lincolnshire election has more than 1,500 Twitter followers.
A source close to Barrett’s campaign said: “We think perhaps it was the work of an over-enthusiastic supporter as Mervyn would never dream of doing something like this.”
The case highlights a growing trend on the microblogging site, where the number of followers a user attracts is often seen as an indicator of social influence. Bloggers, businesses, publications, entrepreneurs, models and aspiring artists and performers are among those feeding a boom in “buy more followers” websites.
The Sunday Times created a dummy Twitter account and in four days bought 4,500 followers from three websites for a total of £35.
As with Barrett’s followers, most of the purchased accounts were transparently fake. One account had the photograph of a teenage boy who had tweeted only once to say he was running late for school. His profile, however, was that of a chain of garden centres in New Mexico.
One of the sites that sells followers, buyfollowerstwitter.co. uk, was set up two months ago by an unemployed former accountant operating from a house in Warrington, Cheshire. While there is nothing illegal about the business, the 28-year-old, who declined to give his name, admitted his activities were “a bit seedy and not a nice thing to be associated with”.
His website offers a range of packages from the “ideal beginner package” of 500 Twitter followers for £13, to a bulk special of 200,000 for £79. “Now it’s all set up, it only takes me about 10 to 15 minutes per order,” he said.“I just sit there in my underpants for 10 minutes a day.”
The man has made £8,000 from the business but claims it is still small scale in the “lucrative” fake follower market. He buys the fake followers from an American wholesaler, Al Delgado, 28, from Brooklyn, New York, who runs FanMeNow.com, which makes an estimated $10,000 (£6,300) a day.
Most of his clients are musicians, models, photographers, comedians and porn stars, as well as resellers such as buyfollowerstwitter.co.uk.
Delgado is also just another link in the supply chain, as he buys all his fake followers from Chirag, a 19-year-old student, who lives 20 minutes outside Delhi. He purchases the ready-made fake profiles from online vendors based around Asia and then operates the software to make these accounts follow Delgado’s customers.
One million fake accounts cost Chirag about £4,000, but he is earning enough money from selling them on as “followers-for-hire” to put himself through university.
Alexandra Wilson, 37, a fitness and nutrition guru, bought 10,000 followers to give herself an entrepreneurial edge. “I go to educational marketing conventions as part of my line of business and it’s one of the things they told me about,” she said. “I heard about it, gave it a go, but it doesn’t work.”
Mark Shaw, a social media expert who advises on maximising the power of Twitter, said: “It’s not about how many followers you have, it’s about the number of listeners and if all your followers are fake, nobody’s listening to you.”
Additional reporting: Kadhim Shubber and Matt Stokes