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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.

The intent for this project is not listed anywhere in the description. This information could conceivably be used for legitimate purposes, such as collecting and researching a particular user's tweets. It could also be used to populate the empty fields of thousands of fake accounts, making them look more legitimate.

Indeed, as Twitter turns on the heat on abusers, the appearance of legitimacy is becoming an essential consideration for those who persist.

Twitter's reputation may be on the line

On the same day that Barracuda Labs released its report, Ding says Twitter suspended around 39,000 fake accounts. However, given that Twitter had suspended about 12,000 accounts a day earlier, Ding says he doesn't believe the report had anything to do with Twitter's crackdown. Twitter declined to comment.

What may have prompted the sting on Twitter abusers and spam accounts was a new Twitter initiative concerning the presidential election. On Aug. 1, just days before announcing its new anti-spam tools and carrying out its sting on fake accounts, Twitter released the Political Index tool. On this entirely new site, Twitter will stream data in real-time based on all tweets that mention either Romney or Barack Obama. The index shows how many tweets mention the candidate in a positive or negative light, and gauges public opinion accordingly.

Given how easy it is to control networks of robot accounts, Ding says these figures could be altered by anyone with a vested interest in controlling the data.

"Keep in mind that many of the dealers can make a lot of fake accounts on Twitter to make some impact on this political campaign, so they can control these fake accounts and post some positive messages and some negative messages," Ding says. "So they do certain things to influence the overall index in certain ways."

The Political Index is just an example of the larger problems Twitter faces if it can't keep up with the growth of fake accounts, Ding says.

"If anybody can buy followers easily, if many people are doing that, then the overall trust on [the] social platform is decreased gradually," he says. "Next time we see people who have followers, you don't think that's real."

Right now, Twitter appears to be stuck in a game of cat and mouse with its abusers. Ding credits the company's recent efforts, declaring that "Twitter is moving fast on this case now." At the same time, he acknowledges that those looking to cash in on the market for followers will become more difficult to catch, putting a thorn in Twitter's side as it aims to become a national resource for reliable information.

"We are also seeing there are some really high-quality fake accounts which have many tweets and many followers and many following," Ding says. "In that case, Twitter will have to be much more indexed and [use] many more metrics to identify them."


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