How the market in 'fake' Twitter followers works

Justin Bieber's 'fake' Twitter followers are the tip of the iceberg - the trade in fakes is worth up to £234 million a year.

Half of Justin Bieber’s 37.2 millon followers may be ‘fakes’, according to analysis by network experts SocialBakers - but the discovery seems to be the tip of the iceberg.

Fake Twitter followers are an epidemic - and Bieber is far from being the only celebrity or company whose following may not be quite what it seems.

Up to 20 million accounts on the network are thought to be fakes - ‘silent’ accounts who rarely if ever Tweet, often created to ‘bulk out’ the following of celebrities, companies, or site users.

The business of selling such fake Twitter followers is now thought to be worth between £26 million and £234 million a year.

The figure comes from analysis by two Italian security researchers, Andrea Stroppa and Carlo De Micheli, who spent months investigating the ‘grey market’ where Twitter followers are sold - and found dozens of firms and websites selling followers, and even selling ‘retweets’ to make people appear interesting.

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Agencies based in London and abroad will deliver thousands of such ‘followers’ for just £11.50 - and boast that their client lists include celebrities, politicians and musicians.

It’s not clear, of course, where Bieber’s followers come from - SocialBakers, the agency which analysed his followers, merely looked for Twitter accounts with low activity (one or two followers, and only following 50 or fewer people).

In itself, this is not proof that the accounts are ‘fakes’. What is certain is that the trade in fakes is real - and booming.

“There is now software to create fake accounts,” said De Micheli in an interview.  “It fills in every detail. Some fake accounts look even better than real accounts do.”

A sample batch bought by Yahoo! News from Buy Real Marketing had pictures and descriptions which barely seemed to match - and each followed a similar list of 2,000 people.

In America, politicians such as Mitt Romney have been accused of bulk-buying followers on the site - and some UK politicians also have suspicious ‘spikes’ in their following.

The dealers who sell these accounts can control up to 150,000 accounts each, and earn up to $800 a day, according to analysts Barracuda Networks.

For politicians, the ‘fakes’ could deliver a boost to how they appear to the public - for others, the boost could translate directly into advertising revenue or celebrity bookings.

Last year, a question mark was raised over U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Twitter following after an improbable ‘spike’ of more than 100,000 followers in a single weekend.

Republican candidate Newt Gingrich has previously been accused of using fake Twitter followers.

Mitt Romney’s follower count rose 17% in a single day, July 21 2012. One in four of those new followers have never Tweeted at all.

The site Get Fast Twitter Followers has offices in London and in Yerevan, Armenia, and offers 5,000 followers for $69.99 with a money back guarantee.

‘In the case of Twitter followers, we place the order in a huge amount of networks from various English speaking countries, such as UK, Canada, USA, Australia, and by advertising
in different banners we gradually gather followers,’ says a company spokesperson.

‘Our clients includes people from various spheres, starting with public people, artists, sportsmen, politics, ending with simple users. Within our clients there are also celebrities which indicates about the popularity of our company and the professionalism of our staff. However we do not want to disclose their names as it is our clients’ confidential information. Our goal is to satisfy our clients’ requirements and help them promote their pages.’

Analysis by the technology firm Barracuda Networks found that there are dozens of companies selling fake Twitter accounts - 58 out of the top 100 Google Search results for Twitter followers.

The average price is $18 per 1,000 followers, with most of the ‘fake’ accounts having been created within the last three months. People seem to buy in bulk - the average site user who has bought Twitter followers has 48,885 followers.

Buying followers is not illegal - but it violates Twitter’s terms of service, and accounts which buy or sell followers are subject to immediate suspension.

Twitter points to sections in its Terms of Service which promise ‘permanent suspension’ for any site that offers to ‘automatically add followers to your account.’ 

Sites such as TwitterCounter allow anyone to look for the telltale ‘spikes’ in followers that might indicate that their following has fluctuated artificially.

‘We noticed that there are a lot of fake accounts, we started to investigate - and purhased 70,000 Twitter followers,’ says Jason Ding, a research scientist at Barracuda Networks. ‘Some of the websites claim the followers are real - or you can pay more to make them ‘more real’. Some of the fake accounts are really hard to spot - because they just grab images and Tweets from other people. If you spend more money, you can buy followers that even Twitter won’t be able to spot aren’t real.’

‘If this trend continues to grow, people will stop trusting Twitter. Next time you see someone with a lot of followers, you might not believe in it. It also poses questions about companies who launch campaigns to promote people on Twitter - are they actually advertising, or are they buying?’

‘It  can make you look great,’ says Hannah Rainford, social analyst with London social media company Jellyfish. ‘People do think, ‘Oh, that person has 3,000 followers, people must like them.’ But you’re not really getting your message out there. I’ve taken on corporate accounts from other companies, and when I analysed them, I was puzzled why their Tweets were never retweeted or replied to, and I’d think, ‘Hang on a minute.’

‘I think the practice is quite widespread - whether it’s done by the businesses or themselves, or their agencies, I imagine that there are a lot of agencies who might promise to deliver followers, then might buy them behind their clients back. My personal view is that it doesn’t have the desired effect. Social media should be meaningful.’

In its recent IPO filing, Facebook revealed that an estimated 83 million of its one billion-plus site users are fake accounts.

‘Fake users should be a huge concern to both Facebook and Twitter because of the threat they create to user trust, online security and the overall community feeling of the social networks,” says Dr. Paul Judge, chief research officer at Barracuda Networks. ‘This obviously threatens advertising revenue as organizations begin to question the true visibility and reach of their ad campaigns.’
anizations begin to question the true visibility and reach of their ad campaigns.’