Can you buy Twitter legitimacy? A look inside the fake follower business

Screen Shot 2013-04-08 at 3.52.44 PM

People really, really like getting new Twitter followers. Sometimes it’s just about stroking egos addled with some instant gratification social media affords, but other times it’s at least a semi-practical aspiration – as insane as it sounds, people get jobs thanks to their Twitter acumen. So it makes sense that a cottage industry for boosting Twitter influence is booming, even if it’s not as helpful as the people plunking down their cards to buy followers think it is. Screen Shot 2013-04-09 at 1.09.13 PM

You can’t go from zero to Justin Bieber on Twitter overnight without a little black magic, and in the Twitter follower business, this means resorting to some underhanded tricks to pump up numbers.

Bots for sale

Just do a simple “buy Twitter followers” Google search and you’ll see an overwhelming number of options for purchasing your way to bigger numbers. If you don’t have time to grow your audience organically, throwing down your plastic to buy a bundle of followers is now an easy option. While most of these websites offer fake followers, not all of the followers are obvious bots. You can still generally tell by looking at how often they re-tweet and how many followers they have (bots tend to have a weird follower to following ratio, unless they end up spewing comedy cold like @horse_ebooks). But some of the more sophisticated rackets are getting profile pictures and proactively dressing up their bots in real-people Twitter behavior. Those remain in a minority, however, so it’s usually really obvious when your follower is just a spam-hurling fake. Take Hollie Adkin, for example. This is not a real person: Screen Shot 2013-04-08 at 11.05.39 PM

Italian security researchers Andrea Stroppa and Carlo De Micheli investigated the practice of buying Twitter followers, learning that the robust underground economy features over two dozen sites, and they generally sell followers in batches greater than a thousand (sometimes up to a million).

Sites like Twitter Technology and Fiverr peddle inflated Twitter follower figures for low prices, and many aspiring “social media ninjas” (oof) shell out to boost their user numbers, even though artificially bloated follower counts often have little impact on stuff like Klout scores, since they’re based on interaction and engagement, not sheer volume.

Stroppa explained to Digital Trends how well some of these bots blend in with real followers. “Complete profiles are astonishing, the fact that some may actually be real people who ‘sold’ their account through specific apps makes it nearly impossible to tell if they are authentic or not.”

And Stroppa doesn’t expect Twitter to successfully clamp down on the practice anytime soon, noting “It’s like the battle between viruses and antiviruses – viruses come first.”

Barracuda Networks also conducted several studies about how these bots do their dirty work, and their research scientist Jason Ding told Digital Trends just how smart these follower services are becoming, citing a website called Fast Followerz as an especially sneaky new business. Ding explained the site’s savvy practice, noting it “allows customers to control the speed of followers to be added daily, with a monthly subscription. Meanwhile, they claimed that the followers’ quality is so good that they can be guaranteed to pass the ‘Fakers Test’ by StatusPeople. Hence, they can offer the ‘Followerz Protection’ five year warranty.This example will become a popular/standard trend for providing and consuming ‘fake’ accounts.”

There’s gotta be a better way

The practice of buying Twitter followers to gain legitimacy is somewhat foolhardy – if someone cares enough about your Twitter acumen to use your social media profile as a benchmark for hiring or promoting you, they’re probably savvy enough to use something like Socialbakers’ tool to determine how many of your followers are authentic or not.

Digital Trends asked Socialbakers CEO Jan Rezab what he thought Twitter would do about the fake follower scourge in the future. “I think Twitter will essentially start cleaning up; just like Facebook has quite successfully recently. However, the social media environment and Twitter especially seems to be ‘self-policing;’ influential users and bloggers do use tools like ours quite often to flag fake users or users who attempt to boost up their presences by being followed by fake accounts. We hope Twitter will start fighting spam a bit more proactively than it has to date.” 

Despite the fact that these fake followers are fairly easy to expose and don’t really add much to your social media experience, demand is growing. Instagram’s underbelly is growing seedier and more spambot-filled every day, with people paying for follows and Likes. And Stroppa says this trend is near-universal across social networks that reach a certain level of importance. “It’s already going on on other social networks like Facebook. Smaller markets aren’t economically interesting to the fake account sellers and not so important to companies or social media managers. As soon as a social network gets to a certain level, the black market blooms with it.”

Some of the websites that sell followers insist that they don’t send bots, just real followers. One of these sites is called FollowerSale. Digital Trends asked how they ensure they’re not selling bots and they explained their method: “We add our customers’ profiles to the top on our websites as a sponsor so when users follow our customers’ profiles they earn credits, users get able to gain more followers for free with this credits and our customers gain new followers.” So basically, they give real people an incentive to follow their customers. “Our websites has some rules. For example if you are a new user on Twitter or if you do not have a profile picture, tweets or followers, you are not able to sign in to our system so our customers always get quality followers.” 

So maybe not every single site sells bots, but most of them do. And Rezab believes the fake follower trend can’t last forever, and stressed the importance of engagement as a more useful metric than simply amassing as many followers as you can. “We believe that fake profiles are a phenomenon which will not exist for long; at least to the extent that it exists now. First, brands will mature and gradually understand where the real benefits of social media interactions are. Second, users will start cleaning up their profiles and will be much more wary of who’s following them because only real human interaction can function credibly in the world of social media. And last but not least, social media platforms will start cleaning up their own turf because fake profiles dilute the user experience, ignoring advertising efficiency where only real users count.” 

Mobile

Updating to Apple’s iOS 12 will make your iPhone a whole lot smarter

iOS 12, the latest version of Apple’s iOS, is officially here. We took it for a spin to check out its new noteworthy features, and if it truly changes our smartphone habits for the better.
Computing

Was your Facebook account hacked in the latest breach? Here’s how to find out

Facebook now reports that its latest data breach affected only 30 million users, down from an initial estimate of 50 million accounts. You can also find out if hackers had accessed your account by visiting a dedicated portal.
Deals

Score 2 Amazon Fire HD 8 tablets and custom cases for under $100

For a limited time you can purchase two Amazon Fire HD 8 tablets for only $100, and they are normally priced at $80 each. The tablets are also being sold as a bundle along with two custom case vouchers.
Social Media

Instagram says its A.I. can track down bullying in photos

Instagram is turning to artificial intelligence to help it root out bullying on its platform. Following similar efforts to target bullying in comments, the company now has systems capable of detecting bullying in photos, too.
Computing

Facebook’s latest data breach could earn Europeans thousands in compensation

Facebook users in Europe distressed about Facebook's revelation that its latest breach left as many as 50 million users exposed could get some compensation. Facebook also faces a class-action suit and a broader GDPR investigation.
News

Voice commands could be coming to Facebook Messenger

Thanks to digital assistants, voice controls are becoming commonplace. One day, we may even be using them in Facebook Messenger. The company has confirmed that it is currently conducting internal tests for Messenger voice commands.
Smart Home

Creepy or convenient? Facebook’s new Portal smart display follows you around the room

Facebook's Portal devices are video smart speakers with Amazon Alexa voice assistants built in that allow you to make calls between FB friends. The 15-inch Portal+ model features a pivoting camera that follows you around the room as you…
Mobile

Find love with the best LGBT dating apps for iOS and Android

If you're looking to meet someone new, look no further than your phone. Whether it's just a date, or you're looking for something a little more serious, here are the best LGBT dating apps available for Android and iOS.
Mobile

2018's 10 best dating apps to help you find the perfect companion

Everyone knows online dating can be stressful, time-consuming, and downright awful. Check out our top picks for the best dating apps, so you can streamline the process and find the right date, whatever you're looking for.
Computing

Google to shut down Google+ after exposure of 500,000 users’ data

After Facebook revealed that 50 million users may have been exposed as a result of a security vulnerability, Google announced it discovered a bug that left 500,000 Google+ users exposed. It will also shut down Google+.
Social Media

Sick of Facebook privacy scandals? Here's how to protect your personal data

With a number of security scandals in 2018, it has us questioning if we should get rid of Facebook. Here's how to protect your personal data without deleting your account, as well as how to just nuke the thing altogether.
Social Media

These are the best ways to make an animated GIF

Love sharing GIFs with your friends and peers, but wish you could make your own? Here's how to do so in Photoshop, or using a few other methods that don't require you to shell out a premium fee with each calendar year.
Social Media

Snapchat is using VR to let you step inside its new original shows

Tuning in to your favorite shows not enough? Snap Originals will allow viewers to set into a virtual set. The new exclusive shows debut today with three different shows. Snap Originals are vertical, short, and exclusive to the platform.
Social Media

3D Facebook photos jump out of the newsfeed, no glasses needed

You're not seeing things -- that photo in your Facebook newsfeed is 3D. Launching today, 3D Facebook Photos use the depth maps from dual-lens smartphones to add dimension to an image as you move your phone.