Ben Sarma, an Internet marketer who hadn't used Twitter for months, was startled to find out Tuesday that his photo was being used by at least five other Twitter accounts.
"Not sure how this happened," he wrote to them, "but you are using my picture on your profile. Though I'm flattered, please change it."
By Wednesday, none of them had.
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These accounts were one of thousands to follow Romney over the weekend, when the candidate gained Twitter followers in two giant waves at a faster rate than he ever had before. This change was noticed by Zach Green of 140elect.com, which tracks Twitter trends surrounding the 2012 presidential election.
Green reported that after Romney's account gained only 3-4,000 new followers per day over the past month, it quite suddenly picked up 23,926 new followers on Friday, 93,054 on Saturday and 25,432 on Sunday.
Romney's account wasn't getting an equivalent increase in mentions, however, suggesting the Twitter followers were not coming in organically.
Soon after Green's report, fingers were pointed at the Romney campaign, suggesting it may have bought the followers to catch up to President Obama's giant social footprint. A hashtag making fun of Romney, #MoreFakeMitt, soon began trending on Twitter. But Zac Moffatt, the Romney campaign's digital director, denied the campaign had bought followers, and told BuzzFeed he had reached out to Twitter to find out what happened. Green suggested someone else may have bought the followers to embarrass Romney.
Wherever the followers came from, some of them are using photos of actual people. Sarma's photo, for example, is being used on Twitter by a "Shaun Morrow," who is "the most funny person you well ever meet," a "Shirley Blackburn," whose bio reads "NEVR SAY NEER," a "Cathern Farrell," who is supposedly a Forex trader, a "Pursuant Pythagorean," who "believes [in] Jesus Christ," and a "Shanie Duff," who has only tweeted once, sharing a link to Orange.up, a British-based design company.
These accounts are likely all Twitter bots, computer programs that use Twitter as a sort of spammer's playground. Orange.up told Whispers it does not employ bots to promote its company, and has no connection with the Romney campaign.
So where are the followers coming from? Sarma doesn't know, but finds it "hilarious" they used his photo, saying "they must have liked what they saw."
Salon's Will Oremus writes that he thinks it was not the Romney campaign, but instead could be an Obama supporter.
"The fake followers play into some Obama-friendly narratives: that Romney is uncool, that he can't connect socially to real people, that he relies on his riches to buy success," Oremus wrote.
A quick dip into the conversation around #MoreFakeMitt gives credence to Oremus' guess.
"Guys, Mitt Romney isn't buying fake Twitter followers," one (human) Twitter user wrote this week. "Bots are just following the candidate they have most in common with."
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