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A Twitter advertising technique is perturbing people. Promoted brands like MasterCard and IFC are appearing in the list of accounts some users follow, even if they don’t actually follow them.
Sources familiar with the company’s advertising strategy tell me this has been occurring since early 2013, but the public has only just now cottoned onto it thanks to actor William Shatner (of Star Trek fame). Shatner brought attention to it after he saw that “MasterCard” appeared in his following list despite the fact that he didn’t follow it. He did a little investigation and discovered that the same promoted account appeared on Dwayne Johnson’s follower list, looking a little out of place given “The Rock” only followed one other account.
Twitter has long been a proponent of native advertising, making its money off promotions that look like a regular part of the Twitter landscape (instead of, say, a banner ad). People are accustomed to promoted accounts appearing in their regular feed and promoted hashtags in the trending topics section. But sticking brands in the list of who a user actually follows is a departure from the above examples.
By making it look like someone follows an account that they don’t, it sends a false signal that said user cares about that brand. Although the brands are marked as “promoted,” it’s not necessarily clear that the user in question doesn’t actually follow the brand.
There’s ethical considerations to be had. Hypothetical examples: What if you’re vegan and don’t want people to think you’re following Burger King? Or you’re the CEO of Visa and don’t want people thinking you’re following MasterCard? Or you’re a pro-life activist and don’t want people thinking you’re following Planned Parenthood?
Once again, it appears Twitter’s product managers fundamentally don’t understand the way people use its application.