Demand for fake followers drives bot black market


If you’re a regular internet user, you may have noticed that said internet is swarming with bots. Yet the extent of the presence of fake accounts on platforms like Twitter may be greater –and more organized– than many previously thought.

In a recent article titled “The Follower Factory,” the New York Times goes on for several thousand words, largely spent describing the activities of a company called Devumi that has apparently been involved in selling fake Twitter followers to celebrities, journalists, so-called “influencers,” and essentially anyone else willing to pay money for a social media following. The Times shows how these fake accounts, often made to impersonate or closely resemble real accounts of active users, are typically controlled by automated “bots” and can easily be bought in bulk as followers from companies like Devumi. In a separate article published the same day, the Times reported that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman had launched an investigation into the company.

If you’re among the lucky few to have read many of the other articles on this site — or if you’ve ever been on Twitter at all, for that matter — none of this may come as a huge surprise. Yet the recent Times story does include some more novel insights into the operations of the social media bot “black market” towards the end of the article.

“Devumi doesn’t appear to make its own bots,” the Time notes. “Instead, the company buys them wholesale — from a thriving global market of fake social media accounts.”

The Times report continues:

Scattered around the web is an array of obscure websites where anonymous bot makers around the world connect with retailers like Devumi. While individual customers can buy from some of these bare-boned sites — Peakerr, CheapPanel and YTbot, among others — they are less user-friendly. Some, for example, do not accept credit cards, only cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.

But each site sells followers, likes and shares in bulk, for a variety of social media platforms and in different languages. The accounts they sell may change hands repeatedly. The same account may even be available from more than one seller.

Devumi, according to one former employee, sourced bots from different bot makers depending on price, quality and reliability. On Peakerr, for example, 1,000 high-quality, English-language bots with photos costs a little more than a dollar. Devumi charges $17 for the same quantity.

[…] Yet Twitter has not imposed seemingly simple safeguards that would help throttle bot manufacturers, such as requiring anyone signing up for a new account to pass an anti-spam test, as many commercial sites do. As a result, Twitter now hosts vast swaths of unused accounts, including what are probably dormant accounts controlled by bot makers.

Former employees said the company’s security team for many years was more focused on abuse by real users, including racist and sexist content and orchestrated harassment campaigns. Only recently, they said, after revelations that Russia-aligned hackers had deployed networks of Twitter bots to spread divisive content and junk news, has Twitter turned more attention to weeding out fake accounts.

Leslie Miley, an engineer who worked on security and user safety at Twitter before leaving in late 2015, said, “Twitter as a social network was designed with almost no accountability.”

Some critics believe Twitter has a business incentive against weeding out bots too aggressively. Over the past two years, the company has struggled to generate the user growth seen by rivals like Facebook and Snapchat. And outside researchers have disputed the company’s estimates for how many of its active users are actually bots.

Bots, spam and fake accounts may be an inseparable element of the social media environment, especially on specific platforms like Twitter. It’s not entirely surprising that some people are willing to pay for a following, or that others are willing to supply that for them. Yet it’s also increasingly clear that as the internet and the use of social media evolve, they can often create seemingly unintended but nonetheless major social problems and obstacles in the way of the free flow of ideas, even as they create the appearance of making mass communication more democratic and accessible.



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