Newstatesman via Twitter
Show Hide image

Want to sell a bad book? Tap into Twitter's network of "influencers"

How did a 19-year-old self-published author's debut novel become a viral sensation?

Ashton is undeniably handsome. His striking blue eyes stare at you from under bushy, dark eyebrows in his Twitter profile picture, and he has finished off the whole look by cheekily biting his bottom lip. He is a teenage heartthrob, followed mostly by young girls on the social network, but like most teenage boys he only has one thing on his mind.

All Ashton cares about is promoting the digital sales of the young adult romance novel Just Friends by Billy Taylor.

“GIRLS U NEED TO READ THIS,” wrote Ashton on 25 Jan, followed by a crying and heart emoji. Two days earlier, on 23 Jan, he said the same. The thought also appeared to be on his mind on 22, 20, 18, and 16 Jan. For months, Ashton has been posting the same tweet – and getting nearly a thousand retweets each time – about a 19-year-old author from Sheffield’s self-published book.

Via @ashtontayz

You don’t need to have been on the internet for a long time to realise that Ashton isn’t real. His profile was designed by marketers to promote various products, and the tweets are then retweeted by prominent Twitter accounts in order to appear popular. “It makes the tweet looks more natural and from an 'actual' person,” explains Jason Wong, a 19-year-old internet entrepreneur, who used this account and these methods – known as “influencer marketing” – to promote his book The Holy Méme Bible. Despite being fundamentally fake however, Ashton’s tweets – and those of similar accounts (here, here, and here) – reach millions of real people.

***

“I bought ‘Just Friends’ based on an excerpt of the book that gained a lot of attention within the Twitter community,” Sofia Aguilar, a 17-year-old student from the United States, tells me. “Instead of reading the beautiful story that I had been promised, I instead read a book that was poorly written, unedited, and lacking in any complexity in the character, plot, and dialogue aspects.

“The excerpt that had first attracted me to ‘Just Friends’ may have been the only gem of the story, and as such, I felt very cheated out of my money and my time.”

Aguilar isn’t alone. The most recent reviews of the book on Goodreads paint a picture of hundreds of misled teen girls. “I was expecting a bit more from this book. It's a pretty big deal on Twitter,” writes Catherine, who rated it two stars; “Very disappointed with this book. After noticing a lot of people talk about this book on social media I decided to purchase it for my summer holiday,” says Amy (one star); Sage, who gave the book two stars, writes: “I am writing this because I had been blasted with advertisements regarding this book and I thought alright fine let me give it a go… I had high hopes but there were so many mistakes in grammar … just warning you as someone who never writes reviews and has read hella books - it is not worth the money.”

***

It is not just the book that is extraordinarily popular on Twitter. Pictures of the author Billy Taylor holding the book and his puppy garner thousands of shares on the site. While the influencer accounts create an artificial reaction, there are many real people who go on to share the posts once they appear on their timeline. Taylor undoubtedly has thousands of real fans (the book was once featured on the Apple iBooks homepage and an audit of his account proves that almost none of his followers are fake), but that doesn’t change the fact that many teenagers feel duped.

I reach out to Taylor multiple times over a few weeks, and when he finally replied he said he was not interested in speaking with me. It is not apparent whether he himself organised for his book to be promoted by influencer accounts (such as @BeFitWorld, which as 308,000 followers, @DeepxSnaps which has 302,000, or @TheLifeDiaries which as 3.54 million) or whether someone else was at work. Even if he did, it is also not apparent whether he paid for this service. Many of these accounts have since unretweeted their shares of these promotional posts, but the fact they are mentioned in the replies reveals that they initially shared a post. Wong, who used many similar accounts to promote his book, sheds light on how it works.

“Influencer marketing is essentially making something appear more popular than what it already is,” he says. “[Taylor] probably won't want to give out too much info due to the nature of the business.” Wong explains that he reached out to influencers one by one via his own marketing firm and offered them “compensation” to share his tweets. He would compose a tweet, send it to influencers, and pay them based on the results.

“I framed all the posts in a way that seemed organic and easy to share. That way, the tweets can reach a broader audience without paying for it.”

Wong had great success with these methods and claims that he earned $200,000 (£160,600) in three weeks selling his "meme bible". There seem to be no complaints about the book online. But when people end up disappointed, as with Taylor’s book, this type of marketing does raise ethical questions. There is also another, more pressing question. Is all of this legal?

***

Perhaps the most well-known social media marketing company is Social Chain. It had nothing to do with Taylor’s book, but manages hundreds of popular Twitter accounts which it uses to force things to “Trend” on the site. According to Buzzfeed, the company charges brands up to £280,000 to advertise via its influencers.

“With a vast network of social communities and a reach of around 305 million, we work with huge global brands such as Apple Music and Disney to deliver creative campaigns and can get any topic trending in under 17 minutes,” Michael Martin, head of the Social Chain-owned Twitter account Student Problems, tells the New Statesman.

Since 2014, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) have cracked down on internet influencers when they ruled that YouTubers had to be “up front and clear” when advertising a product. In practical terms, this means hashtags like #ad (advertisement) and #spon (sponsored) are now used across social media. A spokesperson for the ASA tells me: “If a social media influencer is paid to promote a product or service and the advertiser has control over the message then it should be clearly labelled as an ad.”

The use of “#ad” can therefore stop teenagers being misled by influencer marketing. Things get more complicated, however, if a brand or individual isn’t paying influencers to write a tweet, but simply to retweet one.

“The act of paying someone to retweet but having no control over the message means that it’s unlikely to be classed as advertising under our rules,” says the ASA spokesperson, “[But] under consumer protection legislation and a requirement of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) who have undertaken work in this area, it should still probably be labelled as being a paid promotion.”

The ASA have worked with Social Chain to help them understand and enforce these rules, and the CMA ruled in August that it – and other similar networks – must clearly identify its paid-for advertisements.

“It is our view that everyone involved in online endorsements is responsible for ensuring that paid promotions are clearly labelled or identified,” the CMA wrote in their “open letter to marketing departments” last year. “This content is read by consumers, who may rely on the information to inform their purchasing decisions. If it is not correctly labelled or identified, consumers may be misled into thinking it represents the author’s genuine opinion when a business has in fact paid to influence the content.

“Misleading readers or viewers falls foul of consumer protection law and could result in enforcement by either the CMA or Trading Standards Services, which may lead to civil and/or criminal action.”

***

It is not apparent whether Billy Taylor was involved in the promotion of his book via social influencer networks, or whether any laws were breached in these promotions, which may not have been paid for. It is clear, however, that Twitter influencers have misled teens across the social network by making the book seem artificially popular. A recent study by Stanford University revealed that 82 percent of students couldn't distinguish between a sponsored post and an actual news article. It seems vastly unfair that when teenagers log into their social media accounts, they have to navigate an online world where they will be tricked out of what little money they have. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Space suicide: the sad but noble death of the Cassini probe

It’s not surprising that scientists and space geeks around the world will bid it adieu with a heavy heart.

Since April 2016, a Twitter bot called @CassiniNoooo has been tweeting out “Nooooo” followed by random numbers of “O”s. The last tweet sent by the bot is just “I......”.  

The account has been paying a light-hearted tribute to one of the most important important scientific projects of recent times, and one which is soon to come to an end. 

Launched in 1997, Cassini-Huygens is a plutonium-powered probe that has been circling Saturn since 2004. Providing teams of scientists with unparalleled images of Saturn and its moons, it has allowed experts to examine the composition of solar bodies one billion miles away.

But on 15 September, Cassini will begin its final mission, referred to by Nasa scientists as its "Grand Finale". It will shed its modules and sensors as it heads towards a final fiery death in Saturn's gaseous atmosphere.

When news of Cassini's impending end was announced in April, scientists, casual space fans, engineers, teachers and other assorted stargazers expressed sadness about the craft’s suicide mission. Many are expected to tune in to watch the live stream of the probe's final moments on Nasa’s dedicated webpage

Cassini has provided some of the most intriguing discoveries about our solar system. It discovered a saltwater ocean under the icy surface of one of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, by "tasting" molecules – a finding that could, in theory, support alien life. It also took photographs of Titan, a moon bigger than Mercury, which enabled scientists on earth to discover liquid on its surface – only the second body in the universe to have free-standing liquid after our own planet. 

In a way, Cassini's discoveries signed its own death warrant. Potentially life-supporting pristine environments must not be contaminated by Earth-originating microbes and, left to its own devices, Cassini could collide with one of the moons it discovered so much about.

Faithful until its last moment, Cassini will be diving in and out of the space between Saturn and its rings as it reaches the end of its final orbit, a feat never achieved before, transmitting completely novel data that would be too risky to gather unless it was already destined for immolation.

Cassini's contribution to science, laid out in this oddly moving webpage from Nasa, not only allowed us a deeper understanding of our solar system, but also helped us picture other kinds of worlds. It's a service that has been recognised well beyond academics or professional scientists. One six-year-old is even throwing Cassini a goodbye party, with a themed cake and games – because, he said, it was the “only spacecraft he ever knew”. Others have tweeted out music composed for Cassini, and comics depicting their versions of its final moments.

It has not been easy for the scientists who had to approve the decision to kill Cassini. In a press conference on 4 April, roughly three weeks before Cassini started its final orbit, Linda Spilker, a planetary scientist at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, admitted that it was hard to say goodbye to their “plucky, capable little spacecraft”. Some even referred the probe as their child.

On Earth, we get to think of these robotic explorers like astro-ambassadors, not least because so much of the current discussion around space monitoring centres on how information collected will enable life in space for humans. Now one of those ambassadors is about to make its final visit to a foreign planet, long before its creators will get to make their own introductions.