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Inside the real economy behind fake Twitter accounts

Colin Neagle | Aug. 15, 2012
Some people do it just out of simple competition, essentially throwing their money away so they can boast more Twitter followers than their friends. Others do it to boost their corporate profiles, while even more high-profile cases have led to better reputations in the world of online clout, and thus job opportunities and advertising revenue.

Twitter, meanwhile, has begun cracking down on the population of robot accounts on the site. Earlier this month, the company announced a handful of new tools designed to reduce the amount of spam and abusive accounts on the site.

How, then, are people building and maintaining an inventory of robot Twitter accounts to meet the demand?

Twitter's API used to break Twitter's terms of service

Building an inventory of fake Twitter accounts isn't difficult for anyone with access to an Internet connection and a Web browser.

Fake Twitter accounts need some information -- an image to use as an avatar, perhaps some bio content, maybe even some tweets. For merchants that need to create an inventory of 20,000 accounts quickly, this simply cannot be done manually.

Twitter provides its API at dev.twitter.com for anyone looking to create applications. Once an app has been created, the developer is given an access token, which Ding described as "basically a password for your application." That token can be obtained by simply logging in with a Twitter account, entering a name, a URL and a description of the app the user intends to create. The access token enables the recipient to create an app that connects to Twitter's servers, where all information made public by the site's users is stored, Ding says.

Using Twitter's API, developers can design programs that collect all the information of a given group of Twitter users, such as, for example, the 800,000 users following Mitt Romney's account. These programs don't necessarily hijack these accounts -- they copy the images and text from their profiles and tweets. This pool of information can then be automatically ported into accounts based on an algorithm that automates the registration process on a massive scale.

"Anybody can use this strategy to grab information from Twitter -- either Mitt Romney's followers, or his tweets, or what he's tweeted, or activity," Ding says. "If you're just browsing the Internet and you open a browser and see all of a user's followers, that's taking time. But if you used the API, you can in one moment borrow 300 people's information."

By now, though, even this process has been open sourced. First-page results on a Google search for "program to make fake twitter accounts" return this forum on Freelancer.com, titled "Software create fake twitter users jobs." There, several development projects are posted for bidding that request a program that grabs information from Twitter users' accounts.

"Looking to design a client based application for Mac OSX that scrapes all posted tweets from each individual user who are following a specific user," one example reads. "All scraped content compiles into a txt [sic] file that can be saved to the client end computer."

 

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