The other kind of Twitter spam nobody’s talking about

Source: freezelight

The New York Times recently published an excellent article on the proliferation of Twitter spam bot networks and how they’re being used to artificially inflate the influence of media personalities, celebrities, and politicians. These networks essentially steal the identities of real Twitter users, and those wanting to boost their follower count can pay the networks mere pennies per new follower. What’s more, you can also get these bot networks to retweet and like your tweets, making it look like your content is more popular than it actually is (there’s real value in this; studies have shown that you’re more likely to share a piece of content if you’ve seen thousands of others have already shared it).

This reporting was especially important given the role Russian bots played in spreading propaganda, not only in the lead up to the 2016 U.S. election, but also in several elections since then, both domestic and foreign. Many critics have rightly asked why Twitter isn’t more proactive in identifying these bot networks and shutting them down, and indeed, in the aftermath of the Times article, Twitter shut down millions of accounts that the newspaper identified as being fake.

While it’s great that these spam networks are getting covered, there’s another kind of Twitter spam — one that falsely inflates people’s following and engagement — that isn’t receiving any coverage.

To understand what kind of spam I’m talking about, consider a notification I received the other day that I was now being followed on Twitter by a guy named Derek Cressman.

Cressman is a voting rights activist and author who has 135,000 followers on Twitter, and normally I’d be thrilled to have someone like this following me, except for one detail. Here, check out his Twitter profile:

As you can see, Cressman is following more than 108,000 accounts. While I can’t speak to his specific motivations, such a follower-to-following ratio suggests he’s engaging in a widely-used tactic to inflate his Twitter following. This tactic involves following hundreds or even thousands of Twitter accounts at a time, waiting a few days for those users to follow back, and then unfollowing the users that didn’t follow back. Over a period of months, you can amass tens of thousands of followers this way.

This approach is so common that there are companies that have sprung up to automate it. For instance, a company called Hypegrowth explains its offerings like this:

You define characteristics of the audience you want to attract. Based on this, our team will make an audit of your account and set a campaign which is purely based on following relevant accounts, bringing you more engagement and more eyeballs to your product, service or brand.

These automation companies have grown increasingly sophisticated and have expanded beyond just offering to follow accounts. You can now feed them keywords and hashtags, and they’ll begin liking, retweeting, and even replying to tweets that use them. Here’s how a company called TweetAttacksPro describes its services:

ReTweet allows you to create unlimited ReTweet tasks to make your accounts looks active. The program can batch-ReTweet searched tweets based on your keywords, it can also watch for new tweets realtime and retweet them at once. You can select which accounts to retweet and how many tweets every account retweets.
Reply can bring you instant traffic very soon. It can watch the tweets realtime base on your keywords and reply them at the first time. You also can search tweets to reply in batch and You can set one reply message for whole task, or set different reply message for every account.
Search keywords to find tweets to favorite, or watch other peoples’ tweets and favorite them in real time. This makes your account appear active giving it more chance to be followed.

Ever notice that when you use certain keywords — say, Bitcoin or growth hacking — your tweet is favorited by a bunch of accounts almost immediately? That’s likely automated engagement in the hope that you’ll look at and then follow those accounts.

Why is this kind of Twitter spam a bad thing? A few reasons:

Disingenuous engagement: When an account likes, follows, or retweets my account, there’s an implicit assumption that this engagement is coming from a human being. Indeed, the people who employ these automated services want the people to believe that their engagement is genuine.

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Notification spam: Because these types of Twitter spammers have lots of followers, Twitter’s algorithm considers them “influential,” and so not only do their follows show up in my notification tab, Twitter will also send a push notification to my phone. The same can be said when they like or retweet my content. These notifications waste millions of Twitter users’ time and clutter their phones’ notifications screen.

Faking influence: One of the points brought up in the New York Times piece on spam bots is that users who purchase bot followers are doing so to mislead others about their influence, and in some cases this results in them defrauding others. For instance, it’s not uncommon for brands to pay digital influencers to tweet out promotions for their products. Accounts that engage in this type of activity are intentionally misleading people about the extent of the person’s popularity.

There’s a simple fix Twitter could make to stop this type of activity: limit the number of people you can follow. If you’re unable to follow more than, say, 5,000 accounts at a time, then it would make it nearly impossible for these people to amass tens of thousands of followers based on fraudulent engagement. And limiting it to 5,000 follows wouldn’t degrade the user experience at all because if you follow that many accounts then your Twitter feed is just noise anyway.

The question is whether Twitter actually wants to clamp down on fake engagement. Given its struggle to add new users over the past few years, many have accused the company of doing whatever it can to juice its monthly active user numbers, and so it certainly has the incentive to look the other way when some of those users turn out to be fake. But with the news that the recently-introduced 280-character limit is a hit with users and reports from media companies of increased traffic from Twitter, maybe the social media company will have some actual organic growth to report. And maybe, just maybe, that will give them the greenlight to finally crack down on the spammy activity that persists on their platform. Here’s hoping.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.