Guess who's really creating that hot Twitter trend



Those hot trends on Twitter may not be so hot after all – at least with living, breathing humans. But they may be popular with robots. There’s a “shadowy world of false accounts and computerized robots on Twitter, one of the world’s largest social networks,” says a November 24 Wall Street Journal report, where businesses hype clients by managing

millions of fake accounts on Twitter…to simulate Twitter users: they tweet; retweet, or forward, other tweets; send and reply to messages; and follow and unfollow other Twitter accounts, among other actions.

Fake accounts are thriving on Twitter and are used to make celebrities and trending topics appear more popular than they are. There is also a robust black market for buying such accounts…

More effective than paid advertising

Unlike paid twitter trend listings, which are marked as such, “users don’t understand how active and realistic the fakes can appear,” notes Barracuda Labs researcher Jason Ding, who’s been studying fake Twitter followers for more than a year.

And fake Twitter followers are cheaper to come by that paid listings. For example, a Las Vegas-based outfit can buy 1,000 fake Twitter accounts for $58 from a vendor in Pakistan. Then, with more than computerized 10,000 robots, it “follows” and rebroadcasts clients’ tweets, amplifying their voices, making their followings look “bigger than they are” and making them appear “…more popular and influential.” Also trendy.

[R]obots have helped make clients “trending topics” on Twitter, giving them special mention on Twitter users’ home pages. The trending topics appear just below the “promoted trend” that the company sells for as much as $200,000 a day. The trending topics aren’t marked as “sponsored,” so they appear more genuine.

One of these clients, a rapper, told the WSJ “you’ll get more” with this method than with paid advertising. “If you’re not padding your numbers, you’re not doing it right,” he said. “It’s part of the game.”

An open invitation to fraud

Though Twitter’s terms of service specifically prohibit “mass account creating” and trading in accounts and followers, there’s a loophole so big, you could drive an aircraft carrier through it. “Fake accounts thrive on Twitter in part because, unlike Facebook, Twitter doesn’t limit users to a single account, or require them to use their real names.”

Not allowed, but not enforced

Last spring, Twitter applied a filter that it says temporarily blocked 95 percent of new faked accounts. But that was just new fakes. And Twitter won;t say whether they’re still using it to identify and block fake accounts.

In securities filings related to their IPO, Twitter claimed that fewer than 5 percent of their accounts are fake. But outside researchers, who are perhaps just a wee bit more objective, disagree.

Italian security researchers Andrea Stroppa and Carlo De Micheli say they found 20 million fake accounts for sale on Twitter this summer. That would amount to nearly 9% of Twitter’s monthly active users. The Italian researchers also found software for sale that allows spammers to create unlimited fake accounts. The researchers decoded robot-programming software to reveal how easy it is for spammers to control the convincing fakes.

As soon as two weeks after successfully applying the filter in April, Twitter was failing to catch about half the suspicious accounts offered by known fake-account merchants. Then,

the underground market quickly adapted. The researchers’ system flagged accounts with incomplete profiles, no pictures, and little activity. In response…suppliers now fill out more account details, add pictures, and tweet from the accounts before selling them.

That drove up the cost of fake accounts. But marketers and researchers say the black market is again thriving.

Even when Twitter has reason to suspect a trend faker, they do little about it. While Facebook suspends accounts and threatens legal action for such activity, the Las Vegas operator says Twitter never even contacted or reprimanded him, “though it has suspended or deleted several personal accounts he has used to pitch his business.”

A problem of trust

Even though Twitter has “a variety of automated and manual controls in place to detect, flag, and suspend accounts created solely for spam purposes,” a spokesman told the Wall Street Journal, fakes are still “a difficult problem.”

What makes it particularly difficult is that it undermines trust. And trust, as we noted here, is a commodity that advertisers value so much that they willingly pay record-high rates for television air time because of consumers’ trust in the medium.

“Twitter is where many people get news,” says Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. “If what is trending on Twitter is being faked by robots, people need to know that. This will and should undermine trust.”

And undermining trust is the last thing you want to do if your company’s just gone public.


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