Twitter’s “Potemkin Village Problem” Isn’t Getting Any Better

“Millions of fake accounts dog Twitter.”

“Twitter dogged by bogus accounts.”

social-media-inflated-statsI’ve blogged before about the scads of Twitter accounts that are accounts in name only.

It’s been a problem for years.

But now, it takes on even greater significance as the market valuation of Twitter is being measured in the tens of billions as the company issues publicly traded stock in its IPO.

To this end, I found a recent Wall Street Journal article penned by technology reporter Jeff Elder particularly interesting in that it pulls together various pieces of evidence that have been building … and which together showcase the extent of Twitter’s “Potemkin Village” problem.  (Note the headlines from this article displayed above.)

Essentially, the problem is a plethora of “faux” Twitter accounts being created by an underground network of sellers – including 20 or so major operations scattered around the world – that then offer these accounts for sale to companies and brands wishing to “juice” their Twitter follower statistics to appear more consequential than they actually are.

Consider these points from Mr. Elder’s article:

  • Faux accounts abound on Twitter because users aren’t limited to having a single account – nor are they required to use their real names.
  • In securities filings, Twitter claims that “fake” accounts represent fewer than 5% of its active user accounts.
  • But this past summer, security researchers Andrea Stroppa and Carlo de Micheli reportedly uncovered more than 20 million fake accounts for sale on Twitter – which is closer to 10% of Twitter’s active account base.  (Twitter had no comment on this report.)
  • Stroppa and de Micheli also unearthed the existence of software programs that allow spammers to create unlimited fake accounts on Twitter.  (Twitter had no comment on this report.)

Evidently, Twitter has taken stabs at reducing fakery among its account base — however sporadically.

About a year ago, the company reportedly worked with a team of researchers from UC Berkeley and George Mason University to identify fake Twitter accounts and minimize “robot” activity.  This was done by actually purchasing fake Twitter accounts on the black market and then identifying their common characteristics.

A filter subsequently developed was then able to block ~95% of such accounts – but it was only a matter of days before the underground market figured out ways to get around the new filters.

Within two short weeks, the filters were successfully blocking only about 50% of new fake Twitter accounts, and that percentage has continued to decline further since then.

And these faux accounts are available for a ridiculously small amount of money.  For instance, this past November one marketer purchased 1,000 accounts from an online vendor located in Pakistan … for a whopping $58.

This marketer then programmed them to “follow” the Twitter account of a rap artist client who was interested in boosting his standing on the social network.

In addition, those same accounts have been used to retweet the rapper’s own tweets, thereby giving them greater exposure on Twitter.

And believe it or not, this sort of ruse often works, because prominence on Twitter can lead to legitimate attention by an unwitting press and other “influencers.”

But it’s all blue smoke and mirrors, of course.

The downside?  As more of these stories get reported and shine a light on the seedy underside of the Twittersphere, it can’t help but have a negative impact on the social platform’s reputation.

… Beginning with people like you and me.

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