On Twitter, where your face and name sit directly above your stats, it’s bad etiquette to talk about your stats. Everyone wants followers, everyone pays close attention to how many followers they have and who their followers are. When you get a new follower, it’s standard practice to check out how many followers that person has. Call it vanity, call it “the influence economy,” call it what you will, but followers are the currency of Twitter, and it was only a matter of time until you could buy them with actual money.
Here’s a dude who claims he can sell you up to 150,000 followers. To prove it, he has over 700,000 followers himself, whom he couldn’t possibly have earned with his 65 semi-literate tweets. According to the Internet security researchers at Barracuda Labs, Twitter followers cost, on average $18 per 1000. Barracuda found 20 vendors selling Twitter followers on eBay, and 58 websites specializing in the trade. Here’s a nifty infographic they released to illustrate their findings.
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Of course, none of these buy-able followers are actual people. They are fake accounts, and no matter how many of them you buy, nobody will actually be reading all of your witty tweets. The idea is that other people, real people who visit your Twitter account will think that all of your followers are real, that they all care what you have to say, that you must be an important and influential and popular person. Who would be so insecure as to pay for something like that? Barracuda Labs points to this poor soul as an example.
So how are these fake accounts generated? Anyone with multiple email addresses can manually register a bunch of fake Twitter accounts, but in all likelihood, bulk vendors sell accounts that were created en masse by hackers who have automated the process of registering Twitter accounts and filling them with profile info and tweets.
At least, that’s how they generate plausible fake followers. A sloppier hacker might simply use a bot to register thousands of fake accounts, leave them empty, and hope that nobody clicks through to examine them. These accounts are easily revealed as fakes, and Twitter is on the lookout for them. Once detected, they are removed.
One user recently had over 10,000 fake followers removed by Twitter after he suspiciously gained over 116,000 followers in one day. Barracuda Labs believes the number of fakes among his sudden new followers might be much higher, since 80 per cent of the new accounts were less than 3 months old, and 23 per cent of them hadn’t written one tweet.