In the last several years, there have been numerous examples of government officials placing limits on social media sites in order to prevent citizens from criticizing government behavior and organizing anti-government protests. Most recently, Turkish citizens, world leaders, and international organization have criticized the Turkish government for shutting down Twitter in Turkey. Now it seems as though government officials have learned that instead of limiting access to social media sites, they can also use these sites to their advantage. Since it is now possible to purchase friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter for a very low cost, political parties and government leaders in countries such as Mexico and Syria have purchased followers in order to spread favorable stories about themselves and to drown out opposition stories.
The recent behavior of government officials purchasing friends and followers on social media sites re-enforces the argument that social media can play a very important role in the political process. Or in the very least, government officials believe that it does. As such, officials are now working with social media sites to promote their causes instead of trying to restrict access to the Internet.
Unfortunately this new practice of purchasing friends and followers on social media sites has negative implications for being able to quantify social media influence in an empirical analysis. Using the number of followers and re-tweet counts, for example, as a proxy for how influential a Twitter account is may be misleading if the owner of the account has purchased followers and has had these followers re-Tweet his/her posts. The number of friends and re-Tweets may not longer be a valid and reliable way to measure influence on the Internet if users can make their accounts look more popular than they are.