US presidential candidate, Mitt Romney had a suspiciously large increase in his number of Twitter followers recently. In just 24 hours he gained almost 117,000 followers, an increase of 17%. Barracuda Labs took a closer look at the politician’s new followers and concluded that a huge proportion of them were almost certainly fake accounts, leading to accusations that the new followers had been bought.
So, how easy is it to simply purchase thousands of Twitter followers? Very easy indeed, according to a study from Barracuda showing that the sales of fake followers are booming. The study searched Google and Ebay to purchase between 20,000 and 70,000 followers for three accounts, then analysed where all this traffic was coming from. The report found around 72,212 fake accounts in total, all following less than 2,001 people – indicating that Twitter might use that number for detecting spam abuse. It also found 78 separate dealers (28 on eBay, 50 websites) offering this service.
$18 for 1,000 followers
The average price to acquire 1,000 followers is just $18 and dealers control as many as 150,000 accounts. Obviously this is a lucrative business for the dealers and they also sell extras such as re-tweets. The study alone found more than 11,000 accounts that had bought fake followers, and 75% of these had a URL posted in their profile which would suggest the followers were bought for commercial reasons.
There are differing qualities of fake accounts, which explains the varying price range from $2 to $55 for 1,000 followers. Some are obvious and have no followers or tweets but others are more cleverly disguised and are randomly following a random mix of ordinary and celebrity accounts, or post tweets grabbed from the Twitter stream.
No authorisation required
To buy the followers you simply enter your payment details and your Twitter popularity dramatically increases a few days later. Crucially, however, you only need to supply a Twitter handle and not a password to make the purchase. Therefore, anybody can buy followers for any account meaning that Romney opponents could just as easily have bought up fake accounts to make him look bad as someone from his team.
Of course all this is outlawed in Twitter’s terms of service which prohibit both the buying and selling of followers and the promotion of any service promising to do so. Twitter closes fake accounts everyday, all of the fake accounts follow less than 2,001 people which would suggest this is the number being used by the firm to detect spam accounts but perhaps it need to throw the net farther.
The appeal of these dealers is obvious – why would you work hard at building your online presence, slog through tweets and re-tweets, and think of original and funny things to say when you can just shell out a few quid and get the same result?