Twitter and the Fake Bot Rabbit Hole

The high cost of being popular; an incredible look inside social media’s black market.

When a member of Britain’s House of Lords, who also happens to sit on the board at Twitter, has 25,000 purchased followers on her account, there’s a problem.

When a political commentator and CNN contributor pays for more than half a million Twitter followers, there’s a problem.

When anyone with a few thousand dollars can buy a significant raft of followers on Twitter and influence political and social discourse of all kinds, there’s a problem.

The problem is, in a word, bots. Scheduling bots, watcher bots and amplification bots are a massive challenge for Twitter, according to an in-depth investigative report from the New York Times.

The article is called “The Follower Factory,” and it paints a picture of a mind-numbing amount of fakery and deception on Twitter. The reporters weave a compelling story around the journey of one fake account, in which the social identity of a teenage girl named Jessica from Minnesota is traced around the web and into the seemingly bottomless well of bots.

The authors write “…on Twitter, there is a version of Jessica that none of her friends or family would recognize. While the two Jessicas share a name, photograph and whimsical bio — ‘I have issues’ — the other Jessica promoted accounts hawking Canadian real estate investments, cryptocurrency and a radio station in Ghana.

“The fake Jessica followed or retweeted accounts using Arabic and Indonesian, languages the real Jessica does not speak,” the article continues. Her identity is linked to a fake account that also promotes graphic pornography, male escorts and other sordid dealings.

These accounts that the fake Jessica promoted all belong to customers of Devumi, a shady company that rakes in million selling fake accounts and retweets for celebrities, brands, “and anyone who wants to appear more popular or exert influence online.”

Social media influence is a massive business. But until I read the full article (it’s a long read – and worth every minute), I had no idea of the full scope of the fraud. Devumi and other bot farms exist for the sole purpose of creating massive numbers of followers – fake followers – for whoever pays for the privilege.

“At a time when Facebook, Twitter and Google are grappling with an epidemic of political manipulation and fake news, Devumi’s fake followers also serve as phantom foot soldiers in political battles online. Devumi’s customers include both avid supporters and fervent critics of President Trump, and both liberal cable pundits and a reporter at the alt-right bastion Breitbart. Randy Bryce, an ironworker seeking to unseat Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, purchased Devumi followers in 2015 when he was a blogger and labor activist. Louise Linton, the wife of the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, bought followers when she was trying to gain traction as an actress,” the article shares.

A good number of those followers are using stolen identities like Jessica’s, while many more are obviously fake, using weird names and no profile pictures, known as “eggs” in the business. And Twitter knows about it and is somewhat helpless (or unwilling) to stop it.

According to the article, Twitter will take down an account that is impersonating a particular person, if that person brings it to their attention. That means that first the person must 1) know about it (many don’t) and 2) care enough to pursue a resolution (many won’t). The vast majority of these accounts go undetected.

Why buy followers? Because followers are the new social currency, in a social media world that places more emphasis on appearance than actuality. Launching a new product? It’s tough to do so without a big fan base to help you spread the word. So why not use some of your marketing dollars to bump up that follower bank? It’s easy, it’s cheap (around .20 each) and it’s fast.

This goes way beyond the Russian Twitter bot interference with the U.S. election cycle. This speaks to the very core of the social media platform and what it’s all about.

The fake accounts can be employed to amplify certain brands or topics, retweet automatically and generally makes any issue or individual person seem far more important than it really is.

“These accounts are counterfeit coins in the booming economy of online influence, reaching into virtually any industry where a mass audience — or the illusion of it — can be monetized,” the article continues. “Fake accounts, deployed by governments, criminals and entrepreneurs, now infest social media networks. By some calculations, as many as 48 million of Twitter’s reported active users — nearly 15 percent — are automated accounts designed to simulate real people, though the company claims that number is far lower.”

For its part, Twitter has been accused by former employees of putting growth ahead of all else. Last fall they made headlines when Leslie Miley, a former engineering manager, told Bloomberg News that “efforts to root out spam and manipulation on the platform were slowed down by the company’s growth team, which focused on increasing users and revenue.”

(Interestingly, Miley, who was laid off in 2015, elected not to take Twitter’s severance package. He did this, according to Bloomberg, so that he wouldn’t be restricted from talking about the company publicly after leaving.)

With growth above all, Twitter has little incentive to curtail the use of bots and fake accounts; quite the opposite, in fact. And as the authors point out, even its own board members aren’t above a little pay for play.

“Martha Lane Fox, a businesswoman and member of Britain’s House of Lords, blamed a rogue employee for at least seven Devumi purchases made using Ms. Lane Fox’s email address. The biggest — 25,000 followers — was made days after she became a Twitter board member in April 2016,” they note.

I understand how a misguided growth mantra could seed this kind of abuse. But what about the brands, the celebrities, the musicians, pro athletes, politicians and other influencers who thought it was a good idea to buy fake followers? How do we explain the number of seemingly level-headed professionals who think this is okay?

I think a lot of this can be explained by the confusion over true ROI. We’ve watched brands track vanity metrics on social media, where a rash of followers looks like money in the bank. And it’s much easier to spend a few thousand on Devumi than do the tough, slow work of building a real audience, planning effective engagement campaigns, and analyzing the data for real results.

Along the way, however, Twitter has lost the one thing it needed to build real community – its integrity. In light of the massive fraud that continues to happen – figure a good one in five interactions on there is with a bot by now – I don’t see how they can come back from the brink on this one.