Want more Twitter followers? Security firm Barracuda Networks has discovered just how easy it is to become popular on the service as long as you don’t mind whether the accounts are real and are prepared to buy them by the thousand.
Just ask US Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, who in late July seems to have been the presumably unwitting beneficiary of what the company identifies as a huge underground economy buying and selling bogus accounts.
In The Underground Economy of Buying Twitter Followers, Barracuda explains how fake Twitter and Facebook accounts are now such big business that a flourishing business of dealers and buyers has grown up to feed the demand on a huge scale.
The company’s initial research involved setting up three fake profiles before analysing how complicated and expensive it was to add bogus followers for each.
After running nothing more difficult than a Google search, Barracuda was able to purchase between 20,000 and 70,000 bogus accounts for the three profiles from one a clutch of eBay sellers and third-party websites offering them for around $18 per thousand.
A total of 78 sources offered fake profiles from dealers each controlling as many as 150,000 such accounts each. Turning to the 11,283 ‘abusers’ identified – those who buy profiles to appear more popular – the average number of followers for such accounts was 48,885.
Of the 72,000 fake accounts looked at, most were under three months old, half had fewer than had 2,000 followers, with one bogus account going back as far as 15 January, 2007.
So much for Twitter’s eagle-eyed abuse team, indeed Barracuda inferred from the fact that bogus accounts were rarely followed by more than 2,000 followers that this must be Twitter's cut-off for detection.
The size of the business in fakes is impressive with Barracuda calculating that a dealer could earn up to $800 per day for seven weeks for each 20,000 bogus accounts under their control.
And the dealers aren’t unsophisticated in the way they behave, deliberately obscuring their activity by following famous people or random accounts.
What about those buying the bogus accounts to look more popular? Motivations probably vary from vanity and fraud to old-fashioned boosterism.
Barracuda noticed that Mitt Romney in particular had recently hugely increased his following, which rose from 673,002 to 789,924 followers on a single day, 21 July, an odd-looking 17 percent rise.
Delving deeper into his new followers in the following week, the company found that a quarter were under three weeks old, about the same number had not tweeted even once, and 10 percent were eventually suspended by Twitter.
Conclusion? Romney was not gaining popularity as fast as someone wanted the world to think. We should make clear that Romney may not be alone in having had his follower numbers boosted by fake accounts but it suggests that someone is either trying to exaggerate his popularity, or possibly discredit him by adding Twitter dross to his following.
As of 9 August, Romney's follower numbers stood at 796,713.
“Based on the above distinguishable features, we believe most of these recent followers of Romney are not from a general Twitter population but most likely from a paid Twitter follower service,” said Barracuda’s research scientist, Jason Ding.
Similar problems have previously been uncovered by Barracuda Networks in an analysis of Facebook accounts. Only days ago, Facebook itself was forced to admit that almost 9 percent of its user base - 83 million accounts - might be fake in one way or another.
“Fake users should be a huge concern to both Facebook and Twitter because of the threat they create to user trust, online security and the overall community feeling of the social networks. This obviously threatens advertising revenue as organisations begin to question the true visibility and reach of their ad campaigns,” commented Barracuda Networks’ chief research officer, Dr. Paul Judge.