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Inside the real economy behind fake Twitter accounts

How online merchants are building armies of fake Twitter accounts to sell to users, businesses, and maybe even presidential candidates

By , Network World
August 14, 2012 10:46 AM ET

Network World - Some people do it just out of simple competition, essentially throwing their money away so they can boast more Twitter followers than their friends. Others do it to boost their corporate profiles, while even more high-profile cases have led to better reputations in the world of online clout, and thus job opportunities and advertising revenue.

Regardless of motivation, the fact remains that money is changing hands in order for certain Twitter accounts to increase the number in their "followers" column. And, a deep network of developers and merchants has arisen to feed the market, constantly looking to garner more money while dodging Twitter's vigilant eye.

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Jason Ding is a research scientist at Barracuda Labs who worked on the company's recent investigative study into the economy behind fake Twitter accounts. He says people are selling fake followers out in the open, on eBay and Google Shopping. The beneficiaries range from follower-crazed teenagers to private startup companies to even presidential candidates, Ding says.

In fact, the study found that Republican candidate Mitt Romney's Twitter account saw a 21% increase in followers in July. A full 23% of them have never sent a tweet and 10% have already been suspended by Twitter. Ding was quick to point out that this does not necessarily suggest that Romney's campaign was responsible for the increase. Those purchasing followers only need to provide a link to the Twitter account that will receive the new followers. That means anyone can purchase fake followers for anyone else, even with malicious intent.

"It can promote or improve someone, but also it can destroy someone when they report them to the public and they're exposed," Ding says.

Several other high-profile cases have come to light in the past few months, such as disgraced former ESPN.com columnist Sarah Phillips and USA Today sports gambling expert Danny Sheridan. Evidence uncovered by Deadspin suggested the former was involved for promotional purposes, while the latter claimed it was done by a discontented third party.

On the business side, it's easy to see why people are selling Twitter followers. The study found that the average dealer has the capacity to control as many as 150,000 followers at a time, sometimes more. Those who can control 20,000 fake accounts and can attract sales of $20 or more -- the going rate is 1,000 followers for a minimum of $18 -- stand to earn roughly $800 per day, according to Barracuda Labs. Keep in mind that very little of this work is manual; Ding says the dealers could easily control a system of botnets and set up a few software tools to automate much of the process.

Twitter, meanwhile, has begun cracking down on the population of robot accounts on the site. Earlier this month, the company announced a handful of new tools designed to reduce the amount of spam and abusive accounts on the site.

How, then, are people building and maintaining an inventory of robot Twitter accounts to meet the demand?

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