Millions Of Scripted Twitter “Ghost Accounts” Appear To Exist

(Note: If you’re not a Twitter fan, you’re not going to like this post, so you can just save your time and move on.)

Back on Feb 17th, Brooks Bayne wrote a post called, The Newest Way To Game Twitter – Fake Followers. In it, he wrote,

Last night, fellow Los Angelean, Jason Calacanis (@jasoncalacanis) tweeted about several folks acquiring 30k+ new followers in 6 days.

…I started looking into this and found quite a few accounts acquiring these bogus followers. For example: @veronica, @techcrunch, @anamariecox, @nytimes, @nprpolitics, @wilw, @ijustine, @mashable, @guardiantech, @pennjillette, @algore, @cnnbrk, and @wholefoods. Looks like whoever is following likes liberals and tech nerds. Just one more thing to offend my conservative sensibilites. 😉

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…How did they do it? Someone is automating/scripting the creation of fake Twitter profiles and then following a select group of people.

…None of the fake accounts has a profile picture. Most of these accounts are following 20 accounts (I’m sure once the word gets out they will change their script). The pool of people being followed appears to be less than 50, however. This is an automated script that randomizes the 20 people being followed out of the pool of 50 at the time the account is created.

…I was trying to do a quick analysis of this to see if there was one account that was followed more than others to determine the source. After looking at 50 pages of these bogus followers, I found that @guardiantech was at the top of the list. This seems to be corroborated by the numbers on Twitterholic. I don’t know who @guardiantech is…or if they have the resources to be behind this, but it’s worth noting.

What’s the purpose of following all the other people if you wrote this script to boost your own follower count? Simple. So there would be many more than one account experiencing the same increase and therefore you wouldn’t stand out in the crowd.

Incidentally, these scripts are STILL RUNNING and the top people on Twitter now have truly astronomical totals because of them. The top 50 people on Twitter all have 181,000 or more followers now — but, the question is — how legit are they?

Well, first of all, you can look at the most followed people on Twitter and you’ll find lots of these fake accounts still being added. Just to name one example, let’s look at John McCain.

On his latest page of 20 followers, more than half of them appear to be scripted “ghost” accounts. Here are some examples,

How many of them total are “ghost” accounts? That’s harder to estimate, but let’s look at some examples and guesstimate. We’ll start with some people who appear to be getting boosted by the scripting program.

In roughly the last 30 days, John McCain has added approximately 175,000 followers. John Mayer has added around 200,000 new followers. Shaquille O’Neal has added about 230,000 followers.

Now, let’s look at some highly ranked people on Twitter who are not being boosted by the scripting over the same time period.

In the last 30 days, Robert Scoble has added about 11,000 new followers. Lily Allen has gone up roughly 67,000. Starbucks has added about 37,000 new followers.

So, if we assume the real rate of growth for these big accounts is somewhere in that 10,000-60,000 range, then that means these scripts may have added 150,000 fake accounts — or more — for each of the people they’re being applied towards.

What does that mean? That means there are literally millions of fake Twitter accounts padding the totals of the top people. How many millions? Without Twitter getting involved or someone creating a script that can count these fake accounts, there is no way to know.

So, why are people doing this? Brooks Bayne may have been spot-on when he wrote,

What’s the purpose of following all the other people if you wrote this script to boost your own follower count? Simple. So there would be many more than one account experiencing the same increase and therefore you wouldn’t stand out in the crowd.

On the other hand, maybe there is a more nefarious purpose. What sort of damage could someone who controls millions of Twitter accounts do if he used them for spam? At a minimum, if he writes a script to Tweet with them all at the same time, I have no doubt he could bring Twitter to its knees and knock the service offline until they could find a way to fix the problem.

Next question: why hasn’t Twitter taken steps to stop this? Maybe they think it’s a minor matter — or maybe they have tried and failed to stop it. However, there’s another possibility people should consider.

These scripts are increasing the value of Twitter exponentially because these accounts appear to be real live people. Supposedly, there are 8 million Twitter users. But, what if 25% to 50% of those totals are empty “ghost” accounts?

If another company were thinking about buying Twitter or financing it, 4 million users would look a heck of a lot less appealing than 8 million. So perversely, Twitter may have a financial incentive to let millions of fake accounts accumulate on the system.

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