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Gemma, a businessman, has been making unusual claims regarding social media for years. When he first ran for Congress in 2010, he boasted he had more connections than Obama on the professional networking site LinkedIn, a claim that left some people scratching their heads as to why it was even worth mentioning.

More recently, he has seen several wild spikes in his Twitter following, which has reached 1 million on a few occasions. Many of his followers are in far-flung places like Russia with no obvious connection to Rhode Island, or have no photo or personal information on their profiles and have never sent a tweet.

Gemma’s campaign manager, Michelle Place Gleason, would not comment on whether the campaign had paid to bulk up its numbers. She said the flap hadn’t eroded his credibility. His opponent’s campaign has made plenty of noise about it.

“What kind of person buys and fakes friends to make it look like he’s more popular than he is? It’s really kind of pathetic,” Cicilline’s campaign manager, Eric Hyers, said. “This whole thing is bizarre. Who cares how many followers you have?”