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SPONSORED BLOG: The Twitter underground economy: A booming business

Jason Ding | Aug. 21, 2012
A study on dealers, abusers and fake Twitter accounts

Twitter distribution

Figure 2: The distribution of number of followers for 11,283 Abusers


Fake Accounts (created by dealers for selling followings or tweets business):

  • There were 72,212 unique fake accounts identified
  • 61 percent of these fake accounts are less than three months old (since 16 April 2012)
  • Average age of these fake accounts is 19 weeks or about five months
  • 55 percent of fake accounts have ~2000 followings
  • The average number of followings for a fake account is 1,799
  • The oldest fake account@krailswas created on 15 Jan 2007

Considering there were more than 11,000 Abusers identified from only three purchases we made, we are amazed by the size of the market for selling and buying Twitter followers.

Several quick conclusions about these statistics:

  • Dealers are controlling the following speed and total following number of these fake accounts to avoid being suspended by Twitter. Dealers built various business services from the controlled accounts, as every cent is still money, e.g., selling 2000 re-tweets for $5 athere.
  • Half of the Abusers have 4,000-26,000 followers, which makes them the most likely to be "cheating" group; and three quarters of Abusers have set a URL in their profiles, meaning they might buy followers for website promotional purposes.
  • Fake accounts normally follow a lot of people, but normally no bigger than 2001 followings, indicating Twitter may internally use this number as a cutoff for abused account detection.
  • Still, these statistics of fake followers can be easily used for detection purposes. However, Dealers can apply obscure techniques to make them hard to detect, e.g., randomly following some famous and some average people, or posting tweets grabbed from the Twitter stream, etc. This is one reason that the prices of followers vary dramatically on eBay and other online websites, ranging from $2 to $55 per 1,000 followers. The higher the price is, the more real these followers look.
  • On the other side, Abusers can try to avoid being caught as well, by buying followers multiple times from different services. For example, since 2 March 2012, the world's "Top One" security expert Gregory D. Evans (@GregoryDEvans) seemed to be purchasing four times to gain at least50,000 new followersfrom several resources, which we do not know. But, by running an overlapping check between his followers and our purchased followers, we found 470 fake accounts shown in both lists. Bingo! That is also the **magic** number used in our study to detect all other Abusers.

Most interestingly, during our investigation, Republican nominee for US President Mitt Romney was scrutinised recently for his abnormal increase in new followers (@mittromney), indicating that these followers had been purchased in the same way as the Dealers/Abuser scenario from our study. We do note that these followers could have been purchased by either himself, his associates or by his opponents. Particularly, on 21 July 2012, his follower number went from 673,002 to 789,924, representing a gain of 116,922 or 17 percent.  As this story picked up momentum, we quickly pulled his newest followers since the big breakout, (resulting in 152,966 new Twitter accounts), and can disclose several interesting statistics of these followers.


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