Damned Lies & Statistics

By May 9, 2013 Marketing No Comments

This blog was written by Aaron Ferrell, Nyhus Marketing Intern.


Everyone’s heard the famously wry admonition that “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” In an amusing irony, even this trusty condemnation of statistical dishonesty is itself of shadowy origins. Some say Twain, some Disraeli, and some attribute it to various others.

The dusty historical sentiment, however, has never been truer. Even as we’ve developed incredibly sophisticated technologies to slice and dice and count the numbers, the distortions, manipulations and fabrications still abound. Whether characterized as statistics, metrics, data or quantification, the old saying still stands: figures don’t lie but liars figure.

Social media is a perfect example. For Facebook and Twitter, the digital world places heavy emphasis on the importance of large follower numbers. But are such numbers reliable? Skewed numbers and statistics affiliated with social media accounts have recently stirred controversy both in the political and entertainment realm.

During the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney bought “followers” on Twitter via an online buying service. Romney miraculously managed to increase his follower count by 117,000 or nearly 17 percent. But there were nagging doubts. So Barracuda Labs, an IT company based in  California, analyzed Romney’s new “followers.” Barracuda found that 25 percent of these claimed devotees had never tweeted, and 10 percent had suspended accounts. Twitter-buying services such as TwitterTechnology.com can provide any account with 500 new “followers” for as low as $4.

Nor are such practices confined to the anything-goes world of political campaigns. In fact, it’s even more common for celebrities to try to boost online clout with purchased fan numbers. Justin Bieber was crowned the “King of Twitter” earlier this year after surpassing Lady Gaga as the most-followed person on the social media platform. But a recent joint study conducted by statistics portal Statista, SocialBakers and Twitaholic discovered that nearly 17 million of Bieber’s followers are fake.

Although Bieber still has over 18 million legitimate followers, these inflated numbers can be incredibly deceiving for marketers, who use this information to target budgets for ad-buying. Such falsified followers can cause a significant problem for ad-buying agencies and sponsors. Advertisers understand how powerful social media can be as a medium for reaching a target audience. But digital marketers now have to be much more wary  when using platforms like Twitter or Facebook. Advertisers spending substantial sums to reach large numbers in targeted markets are understandably unhappy when ad expenditures disappear into nothingness.

Similar falsifications and inaccuracies arise in calculating Facebook “likes”. Fortunately, there are resources that can help determine whether Facebook “likes” or Twitter “followers” are real. Online tools such as Crowd Booster or Simply Measured can be beneficial in seeing whether users are engaged, and whether social media data is authentic.

The simple lesson is clear—it’s good to have a healthy skepticism and informed awareness about statistics, metrics, and data. Sometimes the numbers do lie. Even about Justin Bieber.