Tweet this, election followers. Your favorite presidential candidate is exaggerating his or her online following. And by a degree that could easily throw the election - if those tweets were votes.
Bragging about Twitter followers and Facebook "likes" has become a big part of the election process this season, a way for candidates to flex their muscles and demonstrate grassroots support that might not be reflected in media coverage.
At Sunday's debate, Donald Trump claimed about 25 million social-media followers; his site says it's 23.5 million. Hillary Clinton's website calculates her reach as 16.5 million online fans and followers.
But the numbers should be taken with a gold-encrusted grain of salt, say social-media trackers, as the figures are exaggerated by a computerized scam called Twitter bots.
The process pushes millions of fake (digital robotic) followers to an account for counting, attention-grabbing, and sometimes retweeting of the candidate's messages though most often they are passing the thoughts along to other fake accounts.
And while some of the zombies do reach Trump and Clinton home bases on their own - drawn to the light of heavily trafficked sites - fake followers are often bought and activated for cheap through an underground "gray market network" operating "out of India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Iraq," said Philadelphia-based bots tracker David Berman.
According to Status People, an algorithm-crunching site that calculates how many Twitter accounts are bots, inactive, or real, only 31 percent of Twitter followers for @realDonaldTrump are active users, 60 percent are inactive (therefore questionable), and 9 percent are certifiably fake.
@HillaryClinton follower numbers are virtually as bad: 32 percent verifiably good, 57 percent inactive, 11 percent fake.
More reliable, says Berman, an Annenberg School for Communication doctoral candidate, are the numbers put out by FiveThirtyEight.com, which found that 8 percent of Trump's Twitter followers are simply unbelievable, while 7 percent of Clinton's "fans" are not of this earth.
"The guy behind FiveThirtyEight is the number-one pollster, Nate Silver an election forecaster who got all the states right in 2012," noted Berman, himself a former director of new media and campaigns for the political messaging nonprofit the Agenda Project.
Suspicions about political tweet inflation actually blew up first in 2012 when Mitt Romney's follower account went up 17 percent in one day, and Newt Gingrich's claimed supporter base "was found to be 92 percent fake," Berman says.
But tracing who placed the orders with the "bot farms" is hard to do. "If you're tech-savvy, it can be done without leaving fingerprints," Berman said. "After the news of Newt's fraud got out, there was some discussion that a person or group opposed to him might have done it, to then make him look bad. But it could have been done by supporters, as the social-media equivalent of buying the man a drink."
Regularly exploited by image-conscious celebrities and companies that need to keep "upping" their popularity numbers, we were tempted ourselves by the low-low deals at sites like Sozialy.com, which claims to bump up your "following" by 500 for just $4.89, or by 10,000 zombie followers for $39.89.
Another site, www.compra-seguidores.com/, offers a bonanza of 100,000 "fake followers" for $109.40, or 150,000 "real users" for a mere $1,287.14.
Twitter and Facebook are well aware of the problems with bot invaders. They have disclosed the issue in Securities and Exchange Commission filings and undoubtedly with investors (Twitter appears to be for sale) and advertisers.
While the good guys try to sift out the zombies, the automated bot farms keep getting smarter. To create a fake profile, counterfeiting computers scoop up any old Facebook photo and match it up with a random bio - sometimes the genders don't even match - and fill in details about recent tweets and followers, factors that mask the inventions as fakes.
For sure, the real Donald Trump and genuine Hillary Clinton sites have millions of genuine followers, with Trump courting his base especially well, said Berman.
"In some ways he's the first 'Click Bait Candidate.' In an information environment with a deluge of competing media content, he understands how to peak his media attention through sensationalism. His background in marketing and business and reality TV has prepared him well for this role he's taken on now."
BY THE NUMBERS
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's website says he has 23.5M followers on social media.
Status People, which calculates how many Twitter accounts are active, inactive, or bots (fake), says that of his Twitter followers 31% are active, 60% are inactive, 9% are bots.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's website says she has 16.5M followers on social media.
Status People, which calculates how many Twitter accounts are active, inactive, or bots (fake), says that of her Twitter followers 32% are active, 57% are inactive, 11% are bots.