Which airlines are “faking” it online?

Which airlines are “faking” it online?

Social media is supposed to be an authentic experience — which is to say, real people connecting with other real people. But the system can be manipulated. Twitter followers and Facebook “likes” can be bought, giving the appearance that you’re more popular or influential than you really are.

But that deception was difficult to prove, let alone measure. Until yesterday.

Within just a few hours, the popular social media scoring system Klout updated its rating algorithm, and a new service emerged that could detect fake and inactive Twitter users. (The results prove nothing, of course, but they make for interesting reading.)

How did airlines fare? Let’s go straight to the numbers:

American Airlines

Number of Twitter followers: 406,300

Klout score: 89 (out of 100)

Fake followers: 26 percent

Inactive followers: 45 percent

Real followers: 29 percent

Delta Air Lines

Number of Twitter followers: 356,100

Klout score: 89

Fake followers: 27 percent

Inactive followers: 36 percent

Real followers: 37 percent

JetBlue Airways

Number of Twitter followers: 1,680,700

Klout score: 82

Fake followers: 26 percent

Inactive followers: 39 percent

Real followers: 35 percent

Southwest Airlines

Number of Twitter followers: 1,367,700

Klout score: 88

Fake followers: 26 percent

Inactive followers: 43 percent

Real followers: 31 percent

United Airlines

Number of Twitter followers: 132,000

Klout score: 82

Fake followers: 17 percent

Inactive followers: 41 percent

Real followers: 42 percent

US Airways

Number of Twitter followers: 220,800

Klout score: 80

Fake followers: 19 percent

Inactive followers: 45 percent

Real followers: 36 percent

Bottom line: United Airlines has the highest percentage of “real” Twitter followers at 42 percent, and American Airlines has the lowest, with just 29 percent. As to the question of who’s “faking” it, the airline with the highest percentage of bogus followers is Delta, at 27 percent — although it’s a close race.

In terms of the revised Klout scores, Delta and American score the highest with an 89 while US Airways’ 80 is the lowest. (Again, not that Klout scores mean a thing.)

JetBlue has the most Twitter followers, edging out Southwest with its 1.6 million online disciples (only 35 percent of which, I hasten to add, are real). But given the new analysis, that number is less relevant.

What does all of this mean? Well, if these numbers are to be believed, they suggest which airlines try to stuff the ballot box with “fake” followers and which ones truly understand social media — and frankly, the results are a little surprising.

I mean, who would have ever predicted that legacy airlines would have the highest percentage of “real” Twitter followers and the highest Klout scores. (I would have predicted a clean sweep by social media darlings Southwest and JetBlue, but I would have been totally wrong.)

Oh, and one more thing. I’ve run these numbers on myself. My Twitter handle is elliottdotorg. (For the record, I haven’t paid a social media firm to stuff the ballot box or done any funny stuff.)


Number of Twitter followers: 30,900 (OK, so I’m not an airline)

Klout score: 80

Fake followers: 8 percent

Inactive followers: 30 percent

Real followers: 62 percent

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • http://www.deltapoints.com/ DeltaPoints.com

    As far as Delta goes, to me the more important one is the @DeltaAssist one. If you want quick Delta help, this is the place to go. Plus, their numbers are almost as good as CE’s! –


    And just for fun, I looked at mine too: :-)


  • BillCCC

    I am a little confused. Are you saying that the fake followers are phony accounts created by the airlines to give the impression that they have more followers than they do? Or have the airlines been a victim?

    I do not have a twitter account (and maybe never will) but I would probably fit the profile of a ‘Fake’ account. Few followers but follow a lot of others.

  • plateman

    This posts makes no sense at all. Everythign would be relative. If AA has 26% fake on 400,000 followers .. it could be the same as B6’s 10% on 1 million followers. Besides, fake accounts tend to follow active airlines, which matches the high Klout scores. I expected better from you Chris.

  • plateman

    Also as others have said, the airlines usually have unique customer service handles such as @deltaAssist, @FrontierCares … this looks like a post you made this morning when you realized you had nothing else

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Airlines are not victims. If anything, they’ve intentionally boosted their numbers by hiring a social media firm to procure fake followers.

  • SoBeSparky

    Is this a vacation column? Seems quite meaningless to me. Does anyone really care?

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott
  • $16635417

    I’m lost. Wouldn’t one expect a more active and visible twitter account to have a higher percentage of inactive and fake accounts? I do next to nothing on twitter and have 7% fake and 16% inactive. Almost a quarter of my whopping 60 followers are meaningless!

    Even Al Roker has 14% Fake and 51% Inactive! Only 35% Good. I wonder if he is thinking of starting an airline?

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Thanks for the heads up. I need to change “who” I’m following with Delta. Not that I really follow anything; I just have the account set up, just in case, because of a column Chris wrote months ago advising how to get quicker help using social media. When Mark Zuckerberg brings me in for a cut, I might sign up for Facebook. Until then, I’m a reluctant (and mostly inactive) Twitter follower.

  • Michelle B.

    Chris, I was interested in your own statistics and therefore wondered about my own. When I went to the link you provided and clicked through I got the following message:
    This application will be able to:
    – Read Tweets from your timeline.- See who you follow, and follow new people.- Update your profile.- Post Tweets for you.
    Why would anyone allow a 3rd party to post tweets for them and update your profile??

  • Charles Owen

    I think the implication in this article that airlines are buying followers on Twitter to make themselves seem more popular than they actually are is very unfair. Are you buying likes so you will have more followers? After all, you have 8% fake followers. I ran the program on my twitter account and found 11% fake followers. I assure you, I did not pay those three porn accounts to follow me (and I have now blocked them). Anyone can create a Twitter account and follow anyone they like. Yes, there are services that will create fake followers, but why would Delta or American Airlines bother with those? Are people really comparing those follower numbers to decide an airline? If so, they are not doing a good job, because 400,000 worldwide is a pretty pathetic reach.

    First, I don’t trust that “fakers” site. They have lots of people listed as 100% fake followers, but if you look at the followers, some have active postings that look real and some have web sites. I don’t see how they can make that decision if I can’t decide they are fake. Sure, if they have a bogus link (my three for example), they are surely fake.

    Second, Klout has been widely criticized as pretty much useless in terms of actual influence. Only recently did Barack Obama out-Klout Justin Beiber, for example.

  • http://www.facebook.com/CarverFarrow Carver Clark Farrow

    This article suggests that the presence of fake followers is because the airlines are hiring social media firms to “stuff” the ballot box. That contention is not supported by the article. The biggest hole is that others have fake followers as well. Chris himself has 2400 fake followers. Did he hire someone to stuff the ballot box? Of course not.

    Then of course, neither the airline industry nor the social media firms have been given an opportunity to provide their side of the story. Does the industry have ethical standards? Do the agree with the conclusions of this article?

    And what about twitter and facebook. How about a comment from them to determine their response to fake followers, accounts, etc.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Good point. I’ve revoked the app’s access for me. I would recommend doing the same after you’re done checking your account.

  • sunshipballoons

    “Bottom line: United Airlines has the highest
    number of “real” Twitter followers at 42 percent, and American Airlines has the
    lowest, with just 29 percent.”

    — no, it doesn’t. It has the highest percentage of followers that are real. United has the LOWEST number of real twitter followers of these airlines.

  • sunshipballoons

    “JetBlue has the most Twitter followers, edging out Southwest with
    its 1.6 million online disciples (only 35 percent of which, I hasten to add,
    are real). But given the new analysis, that number is pretty irrelevant.”

    And, again, this number is quite relevant. because when you multiply the number by “real” percentage, you find that JetBlue has the most real twitter followers, too. SWA is second.

  • cjr001

    This is being documented elsewhere lately, particularly with Romney’s sudden spike in Twitter followers, that it’s rather easy to buy/sell followers (even if most of them are fake).

    It has been quiet lately, but occasionally I’ve noticed spikes in followers, and they’re almost always fakes. So unless you’ve got a low number of followers and are willing to weed them out, there’s not much that can be done about it.

    I’m not necessarily saying the airlines are buying fakes because it’s so easy for fakes to follow you on their own. And I’m sure it’s that much easier if you’ve gotten some attention. For example, I’d expect a number of new fakes to have followed United after this incident with the 10 year old in Chicago simply due to United trending more.

  • cjr001

    Michelle, I don’t know if you use Facebook, but apps there are basically given the exact same basic permissions as what apps require through Twitter. Hence all the stuff that gets posted about who’s playing what games, taking terrible polls, etc.

    In some ways, it makes sense. After all, it’s advertisement, whether it’s a high score or to mention the latest contest you’ve entered. And they probably can’t rely on you, the user, to make the posts for them, so they automate the process.

    That said, unless you don’t mind that sort of thing, yes, you should revoke such apps after using them, whether it’s Twitter or FB.

  • Michelle B.

    cjr001, I do use Facebook, but when an app asks for my email address or to access anything but Basic info, I click on NO and don’t use that app. And I NEVER trust that revoking works. Once you approve, it gets stored in some database somewhere with just a Yes/No flag. Probably wouldn’t take much hacking to get that info.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I’m with you. The only info I got out of this is there are lots and lots of fake and/or inactive Twitter accounts. No big surprise there, though it’s a bigger percentage than I probably would have guessed.

    I also question some of the lessons Chris gets out of it. United does have the smallest percentage of fakes and the highest percentage of real followers…but it’s based off a comparatively tiny number of followers. It’s not surprising to me that the bigger deal a business makes out of Twitter and social media in general the more inactive followers and fakes they’ll accumulate. I don’t see that as really a negative thing, just a reality.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    The newspaper I used to work for was absolutely in love with Klout. I pitied the reporters because their Klout scores actually played a part in their raises. No shock that it started to become commonplace for vital bits of information to be left out of the story that made the paper in order to have it be shared as an “update” via FB and Twitter. The joke was that they’d eventually run a paper with just the headline “Something Happened: Check FB and Twitter to see what”.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    ” (The results prove nothing, of course, but they make for interesting reading.)”

    Those are your own words from the article, Chris. I was with you 100% on that. But now you seem to have adjusted your stance to “These results do prove something.” I don’t see enough evidence to go that far.

    Your own fake percentages are about half what some of these airlines have, yet I’m not ready to suspect you of buying fake followers. It seems logical to me that the more followers one collects, the larger likelihood of there being inactives and fakes. And it seems like labeling fakes is closer to an art than a science, so I’m not sure how to interpret those numbers.

  • TonyA_says

    Who cares? All I want is an inexpensive and comfortable flight. All that social networking stuff does not make the airplane fly.

  • djp98374

    I’m so glad I am not a twit……

  • $16635417

    Also, comparing a small sample size of just airlines is anecdotal and not analysis.

  • sirwired

    I think it’s a pretty big leap to go from “fake followers” to “stuffing the ballot box.” The fake followers could very well be spam accounts set up by some 3rd-party (utterly unrelated to the airline) for whatever one does with fake twitter accounts. I doubt the airlines are inflating their own follower counts… what would be the point?

    In any case, who cares how many twitter followers a given airline does or doesn’t have? Who does this matter to?

  • Extramail

    I don’t have a Facebook account, I don’t have a twitter account and I don’t “follow” any company. Can’t wait for the day that it becomes popular to be anonymous instead of being a follower!

  • sirwired

    Boosted their numbers to what end? What advantage would an airline gain for having extra followers? I can’t imagine anyone would choose an airline based on how many people followed it on Twitter.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    You’re right. I should have said percentage. I’ll fix that.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    The only thing I can think of is internal job pressures, like the social media manager being tasked to hit 500,000 new followers by end of year and seeing no way of doing so other than cheating. I’ve seen people in roles like that get pressured to up the number, but that was in the media business where FB and Twitter followers can actually impact ad rates and increase audience size. I see no reason an airline would see it as being that important. But, then again, it’s a buzz word and new trend and executives often fall in love with that sort of stuff even if it doesn’t make any business sense.

    But, using Chris’ own numbers as my basis, it appears fairly likely that the “fake” number is probably close to 10% high. If that’s true, lopping 10% off the airline numbers makes the fake numbers quite a bit less startling. I read someplace a while back that a huge number of people on Twitter abandon it almost immediately, which would account for the big inactive numbers. I’m guessing many of what they labeled as fakes probably belong in the inactive category.

  • jonburg

    I was on the core social team at one of the major airlines you mention above. We never bought a Twitter follower. I understand how this could look like a juicy find from the outside, but it couldn’t be farther from the truth. I wrote about this in greater detail on my blog here –

  • jim6555

    In the words of fictional lawyer Perry Mason, “I object (to this article) because it is incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial”.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Thanks for the added perspective. I’ve actually tweaked some of the language in this post since it was first published. I like what you’ve written.

  • rybashka

    The Klout algorithm is bogus. The company defines fake accounts as those that “tend to have few or no followers and few or no tweets [and that] follow a lot of other accounts.” In other words, those of us who follow other people on Twitter (e.g., because they are informative or amusing) but have no interest in telling our friends what we ate for lunch are considered to be fake.

    Klout’s conclusions are based on the misplaced values of Silicon Valley 20-somethings.


  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    Ouch! Not sure why all the negative reactions to this post. It’s not earth shattering, but it made for interesting reading, I thought. If you do tweet, you pay attention to how many followers someone has. Just like with any other brand, the perception of what’s popular may tilt the consumer’s decision. Someone may not decide to buy a ticket on an airline simply because of the number of followers they have, but it may subconsciously affect a loyal customer into thinking, “Cool. I’m __ level on the coolest airline” or “Hmmm. Wonder what makes that airline so popular? I should follow them to find out”. Or the numbers could just as easily be totally irrelevant. Just like with every other information source, skim it and move on if it doesn’t interest you! Chris, you’re still my favorite blog!

  • Jim Bowers

    Why would I follow an airline on Twitter?

  • Philip Brown

    I rely quite heavily upon “word of mouth” referrals; I am upset that many of these “likes/tweets” may be suspect.
    Take the advice of Chris Elliott; a no “bs” guy…