How an army of bots buys influence on Twitter

Fake friend: Bots like the one on the right are known as “amplification bots”.

Are social media bots putting democracy at risk? The New York Times has discovered a “follower factory” which sells fake accounts to businesses and celebrities eager for more fame.

On Twitter there are two people called Jessica Rychly. One is real; one is fake.

One is a teenager from Minnesota with glasses and blonde hair. She likes reading and the rapper Post Malone. On Twitter, she cracks jokes with her friends and posts selfies.

The other Jessica looks identical. She has the same biography - “I have issues”. But this Jessica followed or retweeted accounts that tweeted in Arabic and Indonesian. She follows over 5,000 people.

A cursory glance at each account would be enough to work out that the first Jessica is the authentic account.

The second, as an investigation by The New York Times has discovered, is a phantom owned by an obscure American company called Devumi. “Devumi sells Twitter followers and retweets to businesses, celebrities and anyone who wants to appear more popular or exert influence online,” the paper reports.

The fake account promoted accounts selling property in Canada, cryptocurrency and a radio station in Ghana. Devumi has created at least 3.5 million automated accounts, each sold many times over. Devumi charged The New York Times $225 for 25,000 followers to a test account.

Those caught up in the investigation include British TV chef Paul Hollywood and CNN commentator Hilary Rosen.

Followers on social media are a kind of currency in the 21st century. For example, advertisers now spend billions of dollars a year on sponsorship deals for major YouTube stars. The more people influencers reach, the more advertisers will pay to sponsor.

“You see a high follower count, and you assume this person is important, or this tweet was well received,” said Rand Fishkin, the founder of Moz, a search engine optimisation company. “As a result, you might be more likely to amplify it, to share it or to follow that person.”

As many as 48 million of Twitter’s active users — nearly 15% — are automated accounts designed to simulate real people, though the company claims that number is far lower.

Bots infest Facebook and YouTube to a similar extent. How concerning is that?

Popularity contest

Very concerning, say some. Bots create a false economy, elevating dishonest people and companies to positions of authority and respect. They might even interfere with democracy itself: Russian bots retweeted Donald Trump almost 500,000 times during his presidential campaign. This is a swelling force that can be ignored no longer.

Calm down everyone, reply others. Hardly any important figures have been found buying fake followers. And in the vast world of Twitter, the figures remain very low: Trump receives hundreds of thousands of retweets every day. The vast majority of ordinary people do not judge someone on the number of followers they have.

You Decide

  1. Is it easy to tell the difference between a fake account and a real one?
  2. How worried should we be by the presence of bots on social media?

Activities

  1. Summarise this article in the space of a tweet (280 characters).
  2. Design two accounts, similar to those in the graphic above. One is fake and one is real. Give six subtle clues as to which is real, and which is fake.

Some People Say...

“Everybody thinks they're famous when they get 100,000 followers on Instagram and 5,000 on Twitter.”

Meek Mill

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
A New York Times investigation has found that a US-based company called Devumi has been selling hundreds of thousands of fake followers to people or businesses who want to boost their social media presence. Devumi’s founder, German Calas, denied the accusation back in November. Twitter forbids selling or buying followers or retweets, and yet a significant proportion of Twitter accounts appear to exist for that purpose.
What do we not know?
Just how widespread this problem is. In November, Facebook disclosed to investors that it had at least twice as many fake users as previously thought, meaning that up to 60 million automated accounts may be at large on the world’s largest social media website. However, it is almost impossible to calculate the number accurately.

Word Watch

Devumi
The company is registered at a New York City address, although the New York Times alleged that is a front, with its actual offices in Florida. It also employs workers in the Philippines.
Paul Hollywood
Hollywood is one of the two judges on UK TV’s The Great British Bake-Off. The investigation showed Devumi-managed bots following Paul Hollywood's official Twitter profile. Soon after the paper emailed him to ask questions about his contact with Devumi, his account was deleted.
Search engine optimisation
Often shortened to SEO, this is the process that makes websites appear in the search engine's results pages. As appearing at the top of Google’s list is very valuable, and as SEO takes a long time, many businesses pay search engine optimisation companies to do the work for them.
Twitter’s active users
Despite its cultural power, Twitter is in fact only 11th on the list of social media companies by number of active users, behind Facebook, YouTube, Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, QQ, Instagram, QZone, Tumblr and Sina Weibo.

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