The Follower Factory

A data-heavy and well researched article about the "buy followers" scams. It is JUST SO WEIRD that the New York Times was able to crunch the numbers and see obvious botnets pop out, but Twitter and Facebook are incapable of this. SO WEIRD.

Inside social media's black market:

The real Jessica Rychly is a Minnesota teenager with a broad smile and wavy hair. She likes reading and the rapper Post Malone. When she goes on Facebook or Twitter, she sometimes muses about being bored or trades jokes with friends. Occasionally, like many teenagers, she posts a duck-face selfie.

But 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. While she was a 17-year-old high school senior, her fake counterpart frequently promoted graphic pornography, retweeting accounts called Squirtamania and Porno Dan.

All these accounts belong to customers of an obscure American company named Devumi that has collected millions of dollars in a shadowy global marketplace for social media fraud. Devumi sells Twitter followers and retweets to celebrities, businesses and anyone who wants to appear more popular or exert influence online. Drawing on an estimated stock of at least 3.5 million automated accounts, each sold many times over, the company has provided customers with more than 200 million Twitter followers, a New York Times investigation found.

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15 Responses:

  1. MattyJ says:

    “We continue to fight hard to tackle any malicious automation on our platform as well as false or spam accounts,” Ms. Binns said.

    I'll interpret that for everyone. "As long as we make advertising dollars for imprints on fake accounts, we'll continue to do nothing about this."

    Also, impressed by the sweet masthead (is that what we're going to call it?) on the NYT article.

    • jwz says:

      The whole scrolling-javascript-presentation of the article is pretty fantastic. Usually those sorts of tricks seems really gimmicky but I think it worked out really nicely for the progressively-exposed graphs here.

  2. tfb says:

    Presumably having some fake followers doesn't necessarily imply you've bought them, because it would make them more plausible & harder to detect if they did spontaneously follow some people.

    There is wonderful scope for abuse here, as well: do they sell followers, or rent them? Because if they're selling them they're missing a trick: stop paying the blackmailrent, your follower count suddenly drops by tens of thousands and your career is over (if your career depended on Twitter).

    Finally, can you buy followers for someone else? I can think of some entertaining uses for that.

    • pavel_lishin says:

      Finally, can you buy followers for someone else? I can think of some entertaining uses for that.

      Yup, the article makes that pretty clear.

      I wonder if you can specify what type of follower you can buy. Can I specify that the followers appear to be young African-Americans? Or can I ask for accounts that would fit in well with a more Aryan crowd? Devumi seems to not offer this, but there are other companies out there, right?

      • tfb says:

        What I meant was: if followers are rented and not bought and if you can rent them for other people, then slowly rent more followers for the victim so it looks natural, carefully arranging for the rents to expire over a short period of time.

  3. Glaurung says:

    "JUST SO WEIRD that the New York Times was able to crunch the numbers and see obvious botnets pop out, but Twitter and Facebook are incapable of this. SO WEIRD."

    It's almost as if the companies don't actually care as much as they claim to about being a cesspool of spammers and SEO bots.

    • Happen Muche says:

      Actually- they could do something about it. They'd just have to force the same restrictions where you effectively have to get one burner phone per account on users outside the First World. That would be racist, though.

      • pavel_lishin says:

        They wouldn't even have to go that far. Put up a CAPTCHA. Put in limits on how many users you're allowed to follow on a new account.

  4. Happen Muche says:

    I'm assuming these companies have the work done out of South-East Asia and possibly the Middle East (possibly with the same people working for them, you aren't going to find any actual citizen of the UAE actually working in that country). These are the same spots where you can mass register Twitter accounts without getting phone-locked.

  5. NB says:

    So weird. Except they are capable of that. A few years ago I found 1,000 extra followers on my Twitter account, a significant increase. At the time I had set it up to have Twitter email me for every new follower, which had not happened for any of them. I have to speculate that's because Twitter recognised it as a botnet.

    I investigated a few of the new followers. Stock photos and images stolen off of LinkedIn profiles as pictures, and it was clear who had been buying followers. Eventually I found an account owned by a gentleman with an Indian-sounding name openly tweeting about selling followers.

    It took me a few weeks because Twitter rate-limits abuse reports but I ended up blocking and reporting all of them because I am that kind of person.

  6. Kyzer says:

    "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

  7. pavel_lishin says:

    To quote Neal Stephenson's Anathem, as usual:

    “No, the Ret - its physical layer, anyway - is working fine. But there’s a low-level bug in the dynamics of the reputon space. Early in the Reticulum - thousands of years ago - it became almost useless because it was cluttered with faulty, obsolete, or downright misleading information,” Sammann said.

    “Crap, you once called it,” I reminded him.

    “Yes - a technical term. So crap filtering became important. Businesses were built around it. Some of those businesses came up with a clever plan to make more money: they poisoned the well. They began to put crap on the Reticulum deliberately, forcing people to use their products to filter that crap back out. They created syndevs whose sole purpose was to spew crap into the Reticulum. But it had to be good crap.”

    “What is good crap?” Arsibalt asked in a politely incredulous tone.

    “Well, bad crap would be an unformatted document consisting of random letters. Good crap would be a beautifully typeset, well-written document that contained a hundred correct, verifiable sentences and one that was subtly false. It’s a lot harder to generate good crap. At first they had to hire humans to churn it out. They mostly did it by taking legitimate documents and inserting errors - swapping one name for another, say. But it didn’t really take off until the military got interested.”

    “As a tactic for planting misinformation in the enemy’s reticules, you mean,” Osa said. “This I know about. You are referring to the Artificial Inanity programs of the mid-First Millennium A.R.”

    “Exactly!” Sammann said. “Artificial Inanity systems of enormous sophistication and power were built for exactly the purpose Fraa Osa has mentioned. In no time at all, the praxis leaked to the commercial sector and spread to the Rampant Orphan Botnet Ecologies. Never mind. The point is that there was a sort of Dark Age on the Reticulum that lasted until my Ita forerunners were able to bring matters in hand.”

    So, to make a long story short, for every legitimate document floating around on the Reticulum, there are hundreds or thousands of bogus versions - bogons, as we call them.”

    • MetaRZA says:

      I've read this book 3 times and each time I picked up something I missed the previous times. Easily the best SF book in the last long while.

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