Buying and selling fake ‘followers’ and ‘likes’ on social media is becoming an everyday phenomenon. However, what seems to have become a thriving parallel economy could adversely affect the trust Internet users place in the networks.

Use of Fake Profiles Proliferating on Social Networks

Setting up fake accounts on Twitter with a view to selling ‘followers’ has become a business in itself. Those who buy followers usually do so with the aim of selling advertising as they acquire what seems to be a large audience for their tweets. Barracuda Labs, the global ‘research and threat-analysis team’ of California-based IT security company Barracuda Networks, has just published  a study -  The Twitter Underground Economy: A Blooming Business  - which analyses the growing market in the use of fake profiles on the social networking site. Facebook also recently estimated the number of fake profiles registered on its site at 83 million, indicating the existence of a real underground economy. While the purpose of the practice is to boost one’s perceived popularity, enabling the sale of advertising based on the newly-acquired large social audience, it can also allow abusers to indulge in other malicious activities. These fake accounts therefore pose a risk. “Fake users should be a huge concern to both Facebook and Twitter because of the threat they create to user trust, online security and the overall community feeling of the social networks,” warned Dr Paul Judge, Chief Research Officer at Barracuda Networks.”

How does the market work?

In order to carry out the study, researchers at Barracuda Labs began by creating three Twitter accounts. They then purchased some 20,000 to 70,000 ‘followers’ for each account. The researchers found around twenty dealers in bogus accounts on auction site eBay and a Google search for “buy Twitter followers” threw up 58 sites among the Top 100 results, from which they were able to purchase more followers.  Buyers are multiplying. The average buyer has 48,885 Twitter followers and the average fake Twitter account is following 1,799 other accounts. As the practice mushrooms, the average price for fake followers now stands at around €15 per 1,000 followers. The Barracuda study also found that 61% of all fake Twitter accounts are less than three months old and the average age of a fake Twitter account is just 19 weeks.

Mitt Romney under scrutiny

However buying fake followers isn’t only about commercial brands. The most recent – and perhaps the most publicised – example is that of Mitt Romney, the US Presidential election candidate. An analysis of his Twitter followers highlighted that a majority of Mitt Romney follower accounts had been created very recently. Some 80% were less than three months old and 25% were less than three weeks old. In addition, on July 21 the number of his followers rose by 17% in just one day. Moreover, among his most recent followers, one in four had made no tweets at all. So it would seem that these recent followers of Mitt Romney are “not from a general Twitter population” but most likely from a paid Twitter follower service, concluded the report’s author.