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Did Mitt Romney really get 117,000 REAL Twitter followers in ONE DAY?

Researchers unpick booming black market for fake Twitter profiles

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A network of developers and merchants has grown to service the market for fake Twitter followers.

Selling bundles of 1,000 fake followers for the typical price of around $18 a day can bring in revenues of $800 per day, according to a study by security researchers at Barracuda Networks. Dealers also have the option of selling re-tweets as an additional source of revenue, a dodgy trade that commands a fee of $5 for 2,000 re-tweets. The average dealer controls as many as 150,000 followers at a time. The creation of these dodgy accounts is automated using tools that copy pictures from genuine profile before registering fake profiles, so very little effort is involved.

The average fake Twitter account is following 1,799 people. Fake accounts normally follow a lot of people, but normally no more than 2,001, indicating Twitter may internally uses this number as a cutoff for abused account detection.

Barracuda discovered 20 dealers in fake Twitter profiles on eBay alone. Many dealers have established websites to tout for business. Creating fake Twitter accounts and either buying or selling followers is against Twitter's terms of service rules, and gradually erodes the overall value of the social network. Twitter told researchers that it is detecting fake accounts and followings, and is suspending those it identifies. Barracuda warns that these efforts need to be stepped up to prevent fake accounts from blending into the massive Twitter population.

How to make a 'real' fake profile

Dealers sometimes try to make fake profiles harder to detect by randomly following some famous and some average people, or posting tweets grabbed from the Twitter stream. "This is one reason that the prices of followers vary dramatically on eBay and other online websites, ranging from $2 to $55 per 1,000 followers," Jason Ding, a research scientist at Barracuda explains in a blog post. "The higher the price is, the more real these followers look."

Abusers buy fake followers in order to appear popular or to reach their goal of expanding their audience more quickly than organic growth would allow. In some cases, customers of fake profiles use their accounts to sell ads. The average abuser has 48,885 followers. Half of the abusers have 4,000-26,000 followers. Abusers attempt to avoid getting caught themselves by buying followers multiple times from different services.

Security researchers at Barracuda came up with these figures after setting up three Twitter accounts and purchasing between 20,000 and 70,000 Twitter followers for each of them from eBay and a website before investigating the characteristics of the fake fans, such as who else they were following.

"Considering there were more than 11,000 abusers identified from only three purchases we made, we are amazed by the size of market for selling and buying Twitter followers," Ding notes.

Barracuda found that suspicious activity around Mitt Romney's Twitter profile suggests he may have acquired fake followers. For example, there was a 17 per cent increase in Romney's followers in one day (21 July 2012) that swelled his follower count from 673,002 to 789,924. Four in five of those new follower accounts were created less than three months ago and, even more suspiciously, one in four of those accounts (23 per cent) had never sent a single tweet. One in 10 of the accounts have already been suspended by Twitter.

"We believe most of these recent followers of Romney are not from a general Twitter population but most likely from a paid Twitter follower service," Ding writes. "It is possible for anyone to buy followers for other Twitter users ... Romney’s newest followers could have been paid for by himself, his associates or by his opponents. So far, there is not a feasible way to confirm who is responsible."

Barracuda carried out its study into fake Twitter profiles, which follows a similar study about fakery on Facebook, in order to better protect its customers from spam and phishing attacks on social networks. ®

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