Inside the world of fake Twitter accounts

If you aren’t padding your numbers, you aren’t trying“.  Not sure if I agree with that.

Mr. Vidmar offers a window into the shadowy world of false accounts and computerized robots on Twitter, one of the world’s largest social networks. Surrounded by a dozen computers at his home overlooking a golf course near the Las Vegas Strip, Mr. Vidmar has been buying fake accounts and unleashing them on Twitter for six years.

Today, he says he manages 10,000 robots for roughly 50 clients, who pay Mr. Vidmar to make them appear more popular and influential.

His are among millions of fake accounts on Twitter. Mr. Vidmar and other owners manage them to simulate Twitter users: they tweet; retweet, or forward, other tweets; send and reply to messages; and follow and unfollow other Twitter accounts, among other actions.

Some entertainers pay for fake followers. But false accounts can be political tools as well. In 2011, thousands of fake accounts disrupted anti-Kremlin protesters on Twitter.

The fake accounts remain a cloud over Twitter Inc. in the wake of its successful initial public offering. “Twitter is where many people get news,” says Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. “If what is trending on Twitter is being faked by robots, people need to know that. This will and should undermine trust.”

Fake accounts thrive on Twitter in part because, unlike Facebook, FB +1.07% Twitter doesn’t limit users to a single account, or require them to use their real names.

Twitter’s terms of service prohibit “mass account creation,” and the buying or selling of accounts or followers. Last spring, Twitter helped a research team apply a filter that, for a time, blocked 95% of new fake accounts.

A Twitter spokesman wouldn’t disclose whether the company has continued to use the researchers’ technique to identify and block suspect accounts.

While conceding that fakes are “a difficult problem, the Twitter spokesman said, “We have a variety of automated and manual controls in place to detect, flag, and suspend accounts created solely for spam purposes.”

On Friday the company posted a job opening ad on its site for an anti-spam product manager position.

Mr. Vidmar says Facebook has suspended his accounts and threatened legal action for pursuing similar activities on that network. Twitter hasn’t contacted or reprimanded him, he says, though it has suspended or deleted several personal accounts he has used to pitch his business.

In securities filings, Twitter says it believes fake accounts represent fewer than 5% of its 230 million active users. Independent researchers believe the number is higher.

Italian security researchers Andrea Stroppa and Carlo De Micheli say they found 20 million fake accounts for sale on Twitter this summer. That would amount to nearly 9% of Twitter’s monthly active users. The Italian researchers also found software for sale that allows spammers to create unlimited fake accounts. The researchers decoded robot-programming software to reveal how easy it is for spammers to control the convincing fakes.

Twitter declined to discuss specific findings.

Jason Ding, a researcher at Barracuda Labs who has studied fake Twitter followers for more than a year, also thinks Twitter underestimates the prevalence of fake accounts on the network. Mr. Ding says users don’t understand how active and realistic the fakes can appear.

For 10 months in 2012 and 2013, a team of researchers from the University of California Berkeley and George Mason University worked with Twitter’s security department to help identify fake accounts and minimize robot activity.

The team bought fake accounts on the black market, identified common characteristics, and developed a filter that would block roughly 95% of such accounts. Twitter’s previous system caught about 8% of fake accounts, the researchers said. They presented the results at an academic conference.

In April, Twitter and the researchers applied the filter. Mr. Vidmar says he remembers the day, because most of his fake accounts were deleted, and he couldn’t create new ones. “They cleaned house,” he says.

But Mr. Vidmar and others say the underground market quickly adapted. The researchers’ system flagged accounts with incomplete profiles, no pictures, and little activity. In response, Mr. Vidmar says suppliers now fill out more account details, add pictures, and tweet from the accounts before selling them.

That drove up the cost of fake accounts. But marketers and researchers say the black market is again thriving.

Just two weeks after the crackdown, Twitter caught only about half the suspicious accounts being offered by merchants previously identified as selling fake accounts, according to the Berkeley researchers.

Mr. Vidmar says one of his suppliers is offering 150,000 fake accounts for sale. “I could go buy fake accounts from about 20 different sources right now,” he says.

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