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How world leaders build their massive Twitter followings

This post has been corrected.

India’s prime minister @NarendraModi is now the third most followed world leader on Twitter with twelve million followers, less than a year after his election in May 2014, according to the latest Twiplomacy study. However, India’s growing online population and Twitter penetration cannot be the only explanation for his phenomenal social media ascension.

On April 7, 2015 the @NarendraModi Twitter account gained more than 280,000 new followers in a single day, more than ten times his average daily follower growth which stands at an impressive 25,000. On that day, Modi tweeted about the World Health Day and a music festival; however no event in his Twitter time line would seem to justify such a follower surge.

Correction: A Twitter India spokesperson confirmed the sudden surge, explaining that on that date his off-line followers (i.e. the people following him via text on mobile phones only) had been added to his online following.

Other world leaders have seen their followers shoot through the roof during historic events: King Salman’s first tweets after his accession to the throne of Saudi Arabia in late January 2015 were retweeted several hundred thousand times and he more than doubled his followers in the subsequent weeks.

Pope Francis gained 50,000 new followers a day during his visit to the Philippines in mid-January 2015, while Hillary Clinton added more than 150,000 new followers the day she announced her 2016 presidential bid on 12 April 2015.

According to Twiplomacy, Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko has seen the most impressive growth in followers over the past year with his followers growing from 15,569 in June 2014 to 570,457 in March 2015. His followers mysteriously exploded in the first half of March 2015 but have dwindled since, suggesting that the number was artificially bolstered.

It is impossible to say whether governments pay to promote the accounts of their leaders. However there are some disturbing patterns. The most popular tweet of the Mexican presidency—a press release about president Enrique Pena Nieto bestowing the Order of the Aztec Eagle on three Japanese citizens—sent on April 10, 2013 was retweeted 4,300 times but only favourited seven times. Moreover, 4,299 Twitter users who retweeted the tweet have asked not to be shown—the hallmark of an army of Twitter spam bots. Interestingly, all top tweets sent by other Mexican government accounts have a large number of retweets but very few favourites indicating an artificial boosting of retweet numbers.

The Twiplomacy report notes a similar pattern on the @IndianDiplomacy and the @MEAIndia accounts whose tweets are automatically retweeted by an army of 90 tweeps who all follow each other and whose sole purpose is to retweet the tweets from @IndianDiplomacy, @MEAIndia and @TOIIndiaNews, three accounts listed on each of their public Twitter list, aptly entitled “RT”.

A similar pattern can be witnessed on the Twitter account of Venezuela’s president @NicolasMaduro who is in third place according to Twiplomacy with a phenomenal average of 3,198 retweets per tweet; however his tweets are favourited ten times less. Strange to say the least.

Twiplomacy is conducted by public relations and communications firm Burson-Marsteller. This post first appeared on LinkedInWe welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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