As many as 20m Twitter accounts are fake

Despite earlier high-profile publicity about the use of fake Twitter followers, the market continues to thrive with estimates claiming it has turned into a multimillion-dollar business.

Despite earlier high-profile publicity about the use of fake Twitter followers, the market continues to thrive with estimates claiming it has turned into a multimillion-dollar business.

A new report claims there are as many as 20 million fake Twitter accounts with tens of thousands of new accounts being created each week.

We've written about this quite a bit before. About the Saudi cleric who issued a “Twitter fatwa” and said buying followers was sinful, and “Why buying Twitter followers is a total waste of time” following several noteworthy cases such as  former Conservative parliamentary candidate Mark Clarke and one-time US Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.

The latest look into the market comes from two Italian security consultants, Andrea Stroppa and Carlo De Micheli, who have studied the underground market for fake Twitter followers, which now includes as many as two dozen firms.

With names such as Fiverr, SeoClerks, InterTwitter, FanMeNow, LikedSocial, SocialPresence, and Viral Media Boost, they offer batches of fake followers ranging from as few as 1,000 for around $18 to as many as 1 million.

The rising number of companies in the field has come around for one very attractive reason. Stroppa and De Micheli found firms boasting that they could make between $2 and $30 per fake account. That makes the fake Twitter follower business a multimillion-dollar market.

100,000 followers created in five days
Some companies claim they can make $1 million in one week and can create up to 100,000 new Twitter accounts in just five days.

Overall, the pair estimates that there are now as many as 20 million fake follower accounts out there with many looking and Tweeting like real accounts.

For instance, one account highlighted by The New York Times for Cilia Poon on the surface looks like a real account with a fake bio and links to a website. It retweets stories from tech news site the Next Web. However, it follows no one and sends out a high volume of tweets having tweeted more than 17,000 times and tweets nothing by Next Web content.

It becomes harder to spot some of the fake accounts as many as 40% of real Twitter users only follow and do not tweet, which are also the characteristics of Twitter bots.

These fake followers can be sold to multiple buyers and, thus, in some cases follow multiple people, which combined with the fact that these accounts retweet others, make it hard to pick them out from the real thing.

De Micheli told The New York Times that there is now software to create fake accounts: It fills in every detail. Some fake accounts look even better than real accounts do.”

The most coveted fake accounts tweet (or retweet) constantly, have profile pictures and complete bios, and some even link to Web sites that they claim belong to them. But in many cases, a close look reveals that some of the accounts were set up purely to retweet material from specific sites.

Mr. Stroppa and Mr. De Micheli noted that while Facebook requires that users use a real e-mail address, Twitter does no such thing. To prevent fake accounts, or what are called “bots,” Twitter asks people trying to create multiple accounts from the same I.P. address to answer a “captcha.” Captchas — those puzzles used by e-commerce sites that require people to type in a set of distorted letters and numbers — are relatively easy for humans to read and retype but difficult for machines to decipher. But the researchers point out that new software can beat captchas, or people can be paid to type them in, in real time, for as little as a penny per captcha, or even less.

This blog post originally appeared on the website of The Wall, the sister outlet of PRWeek at Haymarket Media.

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