I’ve found Twitter to be a fairly useful source of local news, so I’ve saved my home town’s name as a search. It’s amazing how much crap you end up seeing, whether it’s hashtag spamming (“Good morning #glasgow #helensburgh #milngavie I hope you have a great day”) or automated promos for adult dating sites (“The UK’s number one gay cruising site site welcomes Phillip from Milngavie”).
And then there’s this:
20 minutes to get to Milngavie and did this place this isnt going to happen
— Marley Mia (@MarleyMiaka) March 6, 2014
Those exact words have been tweeted dozens of times in the last few days. They’ve been posted by Gideon Brock and by Finn Donald, by Tiara Isabella and Emilio Lee, by Mira Megan and Nora Jennifer and dozens more. Each account has a photo and a bio and a bunch of unrelated tweets.
It’s fascinating to watch, because each of the tweeters is a bot. The bots are soldiers in the armies of fake accounts you can buy to make yourself look more popular than Stephen Fry, and the reason that they’re tweeting about my home town is because they’re scraping content to try and appear like legitimate accounts. They scrape tweets from here, names from there, photos from elsewhere and bios from yet more sources, and the disparate parts get glued together in an attempt to fool the fake-fighters.
The reason is simple enough. Bots work. Get enough bots talking about something and you can get your hashtag or word into the trending topics bit of Twitter, and if you can do that then real followers will follow. Buying a bot army is often easier, and always cheaper, than trying to get your topic to trend organically. According to the WSJ, the going rate for 1,000 followers is around $50.
As ever online, if it’s possible to game a system for financial reward then sooner or later someone will game it – and from then on it becomes an ongoing game of cat and mouse between the regulators – in this case the people who detect and deactivate fake accounts – and the people they’re trying to stop.