Skip to main content

Are humans going to lose the war for the social Web to spam?

are humans going to lose the war for social web spam fb robot
Image used with permission by copyright holder

It’s always there: Click-me bait. Whether it’s a bitly link in your Twitter direct messages or a “Save this dog!” post circulating Facebook, social networks and spam are synonymous.

We’re quite accustomed to seeing spam when we log into our social accounts – still, the degree to which it’s grown might shock you. According to Nexgate’s 2013 State of Social Spam report, it’s risen 355 percent in the first half of 2013. Social spam typically shows up in two forms: Link spam… 

nexgate link spam
Image used with permission by copyright holder

…and text spam. 

Image used with permission by copyright holder

The rise alone should scare you into reviewing your app permissions pages, but there’s more. The report reveals no shortage of shocking stats: Facebook and YouTube are the epicenters of social spam; the ratio of social spam there to other networks is 100 to 1. Facebook is also home to the highest number of phishing attacks as well as personally identifiable information – a bad combination. And five percent of all social media accounts are spammy.

But the most shocking find of all? Spam posts are growing faster than real comments are – meaning our social networks are in danger of being eaten alive by bots, spam accounts, and the drivel they post.

nexgate spam v comments
Image used with permission by copyright holder

“The social Web has grown so quickly, and individuals and organizations have focused on it,” Nexgate CEO Devin Redmond says. “And you assume you’re connecting with people – I don’t know if ‘trust’ is the right word – but in a direct fashion.”

“As companies are investing more and more from a social ad perspective and from a customer outreach perspective, they are creating more dialogue to engage with their consumers, and consumers are using things like Facebook Exchange and Twitter click-throughs,” he explains. This is where spammers step in, adopting the forms of social interaction we’ve become comfortable using with brands. 

“The more money being exchanged there, the more exploitation.” 

According to Nexgate’s research, the amount of spam being distributed by branded social media accounts is growing faster than the actual content they’re producing. Fear of spam could keep us from clicking in general – a scary idea to advertisers who are measuring the click-through rates of what they post on Facebook and Twitter.

So if spam is threatening to overtake “the real” content in our social networks, are the platforms the ones to blame? “I think the social networks work very hard to try and deal with this but at the same time there’s a line for them,” Redmond says. “They want to create a place that has activity and people engaging with other users and brands, so the more strict they are when it comes to approving what’s posted, the less everyone will want to post.”

To wit, Facebook has been doing its damnedest to get us to post more, and Twitter just rolled out a feature pushing notifications to your phone in hopes you’ll follow – and interact with – more accounts. Our engagement is their bread and butter and the idea is to tear down any barriers between them and it, not add more. 

Eventually, will social platforms be nothing but spammy links? Are humans going to lose to bots?

The real problem is that while social networks are doing what they can to detect and take down spam, spammers are getting smarter and their content harder to detect. “Only 15 percent of all social spam contain a URL that security systems detected as spammy,” the recent research says.

They’ve also found more ways to seem “human.” Spammers are teaming up to create their own networks of liking, retweeting, sharing, and commenting to make it appear as if human engagement is happening. And while some of this might be done by auto-liking or tweeting bots, some of it is likely done by humans – this is the type of job sites like Fiverr appear to be built on. However, though it may be done by humans, it isn’t natural and it’s there to lure in unsuspecting users. By seeming “real,” it flies below a social network’s spam radar.

So if a spammer network is being created inside a social network in order to disseminate social spam and in turn that social spam is beginning to overtake human-posted content … does that mean, eventually, social platforms will be nothing but spammy links? Are humans going to lose to bots?

According to Redmond, no. “Spam hurt email for companies so they invested in technology to fix that, and you’ll see the same thing happen.” Basically there’s a bottom line, and social spam is hugely threatening to brands using social sites to promote their businesses, which means they and the social networks they’re paying for these services are incredibly motivated to find solutions.

Luckily, those solutions are forthcoming – although some sound better in theory than execution. A team of researchers at the University of Macau in China recently wrote about developing a trust algorithm so we could more easily understand the difference between spam and non-spam posts. “Since there is little physical interaction available, it is difficult to verify whether social network users are trustworthy or not,” the researches say in an abstract. 

“Trust Index (TI) is assigned to each user, so one can have ranked list of users, those with the greatest values of TI appear on top and vice versa … TI is calculated based on the distance in terms of hop counts the measure how far apart between the user and the peer [she or he] is.” Sound familiar? That’s because at least in abstract, TI is very much like Klout, the oft-mocked service that assigns you a number based on your social media reach, except it would be based on “trustworthiness.” Of course, if a spammer gets ahold of a user or brand account, then TI won’t help much. 

Another group of researchers from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology tested a method on Chinese social network, RenRen, with positive results.  Their idea is to cross-analyze how users interact and know each other; real users should act somewhat the same, and strange activity would serve as a warning flag that a spammer is in our midst.

Nexgate’s research corresponds with this, showing differing activity between normal and spammy accounts.

fake v real nexgate
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Nexgate itself has created patent-pending technology that can identify an individual spammer as well as networks of spammers working together.

Still, the threat of fake, promotional, and possibly malware-laden content unstoppably growing over our social networks until we don’t know the real from the unreal lurks. “Brands have tried and want to try and solve this problem, but have not had the technology available to effectively do it until now,” says Redmond.

If spam continues on this path, it will cause users to step back (even more) and analyze before we interact… making social networking a more removed, less visceral activity. It’s less interesting for us, less valuable for platforms and advertisers.

In between the photo filters, friend groups, and catfishing, it’s very easy to manicure a social media image – the little reality left is found in connections and interactions. The war against social spam will only become more heated as we fight to keep what little reality is left in our social networks alive.

Editors' Recommendations

Molly McHugh
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Before coming to Digital Trends, Molly worked as a freelance writer, occasional photographer, and general technical lackey…
What is Section 230? Inside the legislation protecting social media
social media on phone

A little known piece of legislation called Section 230 is making headlines after President Donald Trump's latest effort to repeal the legislation, demanding that Congress fold that repeal in with another round of stimulus checks, defense spending, and the massive bill that keeps the lights on in Washington D.C. It seems politicians are alwasy struggling to wrap their heads around social media and "Big Tech," a silly term for the technology giants that have defined the modern era.

It's not the first time Section 230 made waves, of course. Trump signed an executive order in May that targeted social media platforms and the content on their sites, aiming to remove the protections of Section 230 in the Communications Decency Act. By repealing Section 230, social networks would be legally responsible for what people post on their platforms. The law that protects speech over the internet has been around for more than 20 years, but has been targeted by politicians of both major parties, including Democratic president-elect Joe Biden.

Read more
2020 forced Big Social to address its flaws, but it’s too late for an easy fix
Trump Twitter

The phrase "out of the frying pan, into the fire" is an incredibly apt description of the plight of the internet's social media giants in 2020. Already grappling to settle into their increasingly large roles in democracy and culture, social networks like Facebook and Twitter suddenly gained an even bigger role in our daily lives as the coronavirus pandemic took hold. In the face of this extra pressure, they had no choice but to adapt.

While these forced adaptations were no doubt difficult for the companies involved, the resulting changes have arguably been good ones -- not only for individual users, but for the world at large.
Too many fires to put out
When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, social media was a natural fallback. People turned to their online networks for community updates, virtual hangouts, news, entertainment, and more. Giants such as Facebook and Twitter faced a fresh coronavirus-related “infodemic,” while at the same time, an urgent responsibility hung on their shoulders to police an influx of controversial political content from President Donald Trump and many others who were quickly racking up huge follower counts.

Read more
Practically every major social app has a Stories function now. This is why
instagram launches location stories to more users 1

When Snapchat introduced the ability to post disappearing text and media over half a decade ago, no one expected that a scruffy new startup’s headlining feature would end up consuming a row of space at the top of every other social platform in a few years. But that’s exactly what has happened.

Snapchat’s Stories has flourished into a social network staple, and now the world's biggest tech companies are clamoring to bake this breakout format into their offerings. Today, a familiar row of avatars sits above all else on some of the most popular apps. You can now post these ephemeral “Stories” on Twitter, Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, Pinterest, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Google (for publishers), and possibly even Spotify in the near future.

Read more