Twitter has been ignoring its fake account problem for years

Image by Greyweed via Flickr.

The New York Times published an article earlier this week describing how a number of celebrities, athletes, and even politiciansincluding a member of Britain’s House of Lords who is also on Twitter’s boardbought fake Twitter followers. An online company sold fake accounts by the hundreds of thousands, including some that were copies of existing accounts owned by real users.

A follow-up article by the Times suggests Twitter has gotten rid of about a million fake followers following the original story. But this is only the latest in a series of exposes on the black market of fake accounts. Buying followers is a practice that is almost as old as Twitter itself. So why hasn’t anything been done about it until recently? Money.

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In 2012, Business Insider wrote about a security researcher who looked into the fake account problem by buying Twitter followers20,000 for one account and 70,000 for another. That story found 20 eBay sellers and 58 websites specializing in selling fake accounts, followers and retweets. At the time, it cost about $18 for 1,000 followers.

In 2013, Nicole Perlroth wrote a similar piece in The New York Times about people buying followers, a topic that had been in the news after Mitt Romney’s Twitter following jumped by 100,000 in a matter of days. Two Italian security researchers said at the time that there was a thriving market in fake followers, with over 25 services selling them.

Gilad Lotan, now head of data science at BuzzFeed, wrote about buying fake Twitter followers in 2014. He bought 4,000 followers for $5 and said that even at the time “buying your way to status on social networks has become standard practice.”

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The Times story describes how the company that sold the fake accounts had a stable of at least 3.5 million automated accounts or bots, each of which was sold multiple times, giving customers access to more than 200 million fake followers (it also sold fake followers on YouTube, SoundCloud, and LinkedIn). The Times said it bought 25,000 followers and paid a penny each.

One reason why Twitter has done very little about the fake account and bot problem until recently, critics say, is those accounts have boosted the size of its user base and the volume of network activity on the platform, making the company more valuable in the eyes of investors.

In 2015, Leslie Miley—then an engineering manager at Twitterfound what he said was a huge number of spam accounts and bots with IP addresses located in Russia. He recommended that the accounts be deleted, but said that the company’s “growth team” refused to do so, he told Bloomberg. Some of those accounts could well have been among the bots that were used to try and influence the 2016 election.

The Twitter executives who said to ignore the problem “were more concerned with growth numbers than fake and compromised accounts,” Miley said. According to Bloomberg, 10 other former employees confirmed that they had been told similar things by Twitter executives.

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In March of last year, investor Chris Sacca, an early backer of Twitter, said the bot and fake account problem was one of the biggest challenges facing the company. “Tackling the bot epidemic would hurt Twitter short term because it would depress user numbers,” he said on Twitter. “But it has to get fixed. It’s embarrassing.”

Meanwhile, Twitter has done its best to downplay the size of the problem. For years, the company maintained that only about 5 percent of its users were fake, the same number that Twitter executives provided when they testified before Congress last fall about Russian interference in the election. A number of researchers, however, believe the real figure could be as high as 15 percent (at the time of the study, about 48 million accounts).

When it first told Congress about Russian troll activity on the platform, Twitter said that just over 35,000 accounts were involved, but then in later testimony it admitted that more than 50,000 accounts were involved.

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But independent reports show as many as 400,000 bots posted political messages during the 2016 US presidential election on Twitter, according to research by Emilio Ferrara of the University of Southern California. He told Bloomberg the same group of 1,600 bots that tweeted extremist right-wing posts in the US elections also posted during the French and German elections. And up to 45 percent of Donald Trump’s follower base could be fake or spam accounts, according to some estimates.

Fake accounts have boosted the size of Twitter’s user base, critics say, making the company more valuable in the eyes of investors.

Researchers say bot networks exist that number in the hundreds of thousands, with accounts that share similar characteristics, suggesting someone is using them for a specific purpose. The Russian troll factory known as the Internet Research Agency reportedly used large networks of fake accounts to distribute misinformation in an attempt to destabilize the US election.

An analysis by researchers at Oxford University showed more than a third of pro-Trump tweets and nearly a fifth of pro-Clinton tweets between the first and second debates came from automated accounts, which produced more than 1 million tweets. Many of these same trolls and bot networks were also reportedly active in the Virginia state elections, amplifying race-baiting tweets by Donald Trump.

Bot networks are also used in some cases to attack journalists by flooding their accounts with suspicious activity, which often results in their accounts being suspended or banned. Meanwhile, a Twitter spokeswoman told The Times that “we continue to fight hard to tackle any malicious automation on our platform.”

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Correction: A member of Twitter’s board who reportedly bought fake followers is a Baroness who belongs to Britain’s House of Lords. An earlier version of this article said that she was an MP.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.