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You may or may not have seen the Channel 4 dispatches programme on ‘click farms’ misleading consumers, which was aired last recently (http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/aug/02/click-farms-appearance-online-popularity). The topic of the fake social account market is continually gaining momentum. The financial motivation behind this multi-million pound business is clear. In this research findings and statistics Dr. Jason Ding, research scientist at Barracuda Networks writes:

 

“Free marketing is one of the most common reasons for businesses jumping onto the social media band wagon. It can be used to offer deals to those that ‘like’ their page on Facebook and, simultaneously, run various Twitter contests to engage current followers and attract new ones. There is a desire for businesses to boost their profile on social media in order to secure new customers. A high number of ‘likes’ on Facebook often instills a sense of trust with customers before they choose to buy something. However, fake ‘likes’ on Facebook and fake followers on Twitter are eroding customer confidence in what initially appeared to be a good measurement of social online presence.

“Barracuda Labs first discovered the extent of the underground Facebook and Twitter economy 10 months ago. Since then, we have continued to monitor the activity across multiple social networking sites including Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest and LinkedIn. Our research shows that Twitter is the largest offender (or victim) with its underground economy for buying and selling fake social accounts.

“High-quality false Twitter accounts are nearly impossible to discern from the real thing and some of the teams behind this fakery are making up to a million dollars every week. The entire fake social media industry is growing rapidly. This obviously threatens advertising revenue as organisations begin to question the true visibility and reach of their ad campaigns.”

Key findings by Barracuda Labs:

Dealers (hackers or vendors who sell Twitter followers):

• 52 eBay sellers are selling Twitter followers

• The average price of followers has dropped significantly: $11 per thousand followers (compared to $18 in August 2012)

• Some Dealers can control as many as millions of Twitter followers

• Some Dealers provide location-targeted Twitter followers, either Global or USA specific and some provide monthly subscriptions

• Some are extremely sophisticated, providing features such as 100% active followers, 5-year retention protection, guarantee to pass detection engine, daily delivery, etc.

Abusers (Twitter users who bought or had fake followers):

• Only 1147 Abusers were identified, with only 121 of them as fake accounts

• The average Abuser has 52,432 followers; 60% of Abusers have 4,000-26,000 followers

• Only 55% of Abusers have set URLs in their profiles

• Average account age of Abusers are 100 weeks, or 1-year and 11 months

• 16 Abusers have more than 1M followers, 88 Abusers have more than 100K followers

Fake accounts (created by dealers for selling followings or tweets business):

• 99,494 unique accounts identified

• Average age of these fake accounts is 30 weeks or about 7 months; only 0.1% of Fake Accounts are less than 3-months old

• On average, a Fake Account is following 60 users, tweeting 77 times, and has 32 followers

• 63% (62,982 out of 99,494) of Fake Accounts are created by duplicating profiles from real users; adding one extra character on the screen name, and using the same display names, descriptions and locations

• 98% of tweets from fake accounts are from Web, comparing to 24% from iPhone, 24% from Web, 9% from Android for real users; meaning the fake accounts have not taken the mobile platform yet

Additional highlights of the study:

• The market of selling Twitter followers is very competitive now: top Google search results show that 89% (49 out of 55) are new vendor websites; the average price for thousands of followers has dropped more than 39%, from $18 to $11 now; several dealers have provided various new features to promote their services

• More than 60% of Abusers have 4,000-26,000 followers, meaning they are still the active group to have fake Twitter followers. The percentage of Abusers who have URLs in their profiles has dropped from 75% in August 2012 to 55% today, but this percentage is still much bigger than that of general Twitter users: 31%

• Fake Accounts have greatly evolved to mimic real Twitter users in order to avoid abuse detection by Twitter, as well as to evade the spotlight of general users. They steal the profiles from regular users, set both profile and background images, maintain a small number of followings, occasionally tweet something original with hash tags from web, and even interactively follow each other to have dozen of followers. All of these behaviours are very similar to many real Twitter users, and can hardly be classified as abuse actions

• There are several new services aimed at detecting fake Twitter accounts and updates, including Faker Check from StatusPeople, Fake Followers from SocialBakers, and TwitterAudit.com. However, all of these services failed in detecting this new wave of fake accounts; see Figure 4 for the detecting results for one account

• The size of this Twitter underground market can easily reach tens of millions of dollars itself. Consider that most of the Twitter followers vendors also sell Facebook fans, Google+ votes, YouTube views, Instagram followers, Pinterest followers, LinkedIn connections, etc. the whole fake social media markets can turn into hundreds of millions of dollars.