Twitter, like many public-viewing social networking websites, is constructed so that those participants with the most “followers” gain the most attention from their posts, reach the most users, and are therefore seen as more knowledgeable, visible and important within the twitter community. This is not unlike any other area of society – the professional who is best-known or whose words command the most attention is usually seen, at least to outsiders, to be the most well-respected and therefore the most knowledgeable. However, because it can be difficult to gain “followers” on twitter without first having a strong real-world professional presence, one common practice among all twitter participants is to “follow-back” someone who has elected to follow your specific twitter feed.
Simply illustrated, the follow-back process begins when twitter member A has been “followed” by twitter member B. To “follow” means member B has elected to join the list of twitter participants (known as “followers”) who wish to be perpetually apprised of member A’s postings on their twitter homepage (known as a “feed”) by “following” member A’s feed. Twitter member A now has another listed member on his published “follower list”. This is important because, the more followers one has, the more power one wields over the twitter community (via more widely distributed postings) and the more likely one is to now gain even more followers. Most importantly, the list of “followers” that one displays on one’s own twitter page is akin to the third party “recommendations” or endorsements on a LinkedIn page that an attorney must police in order to avoid violating MR 7.1.
The fraudulent “follow-back” practice occurs when twitter member A immediately chooses to follow twitter member B’s posting feed as a reciprocal courtesy for member B having chosen to follow member A. The distinction here is that the reciprocal act of following member B does not happen because member A is interested in the member B’s postings or because he/she has any knowledge of or connection to member B in the professional world. The reciprocal “follow-back” becomes simply a virtual kickback because a fraudulent online endorsement is exchanged between two professionals for their own gain, instead of for reasons of professional respect/endorsement. The “virtual kickback” image represents this fraudulent “follow back” practice accurately because gaining followers is like a currency in the twitter universe. The number of followers that members have determine how many users their postings can reach. Similarly, the number of dollars spent on an advertising campaign will determine the amount of listeners or readers an advertisement will reach. Ethical concerns for lawyers then arise because this currency is publicly displayed in a “follower count” which displays the number of followers a user has amassed. Thus, attorneys who allow other twitter users to “follow-back” their page(s) are publicly presenting lists of followers as virtual endorsers of their work as professionals, and if those “followers” are gained through a fraudulent “follow-back” practice, the aforementioned list of “virtual endorsements” could be a misrepresentation in violation of MR 7.1. It is a violation because the “expectation” that this attorney is well-connected, respected and/or influential in their field (derived from their large list of followers) is an unjustified one – due to the fact that these follower endorsements were fraudulently obtained. This is another good reason why the follow-back practice should be recognized and prohibited by State Bar associations in the same way the LinkedIn endorsement practice is prohibited.
As stated, this “follow-back” reciprocity is commonplace throughout all members of the online community, but when this practice is engaged in by lawyers on the website, it could violate MR 7.1 as a “material misrepresentation of fact” which creates an “unjustified expectation”. Furthermore, this “follow-back” practice could also be construed as a misconduct violation under MR 8.4 as an act of “dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation”. That is to say, lawyers who are arbitrarily following each other’s twitter feeds in order to gain the reciprocal “follow-back” by another lawyer to their own twitter feed are essentially exchanging virtual kickbacks of social networking currency and are displaying a list of unjustified professional endorsements that could “create unjustified expectations or otherwise mislead a prospective client”. The act of “following” another professional on twitter is designed to occur only when the members have a professional connection, or are familiar with the work of the other lawyer in some other professional capacity. In contrast, the “follow-back” is essentially a baseless, public endorsement of another lawyer that construes a professional endorsement when none exists and, therefore, could be a misrepresentation in violation of the aforementioned model rules.