Fake Twitter followers made headlines during Mitt Romney’s bid for the oval office, when his Twitter following jumped by 100,000 in just days. It wasn’t due to popularity, but rather an example of the fake Twitter follower phenomenon. Buying phony Twitter followers was a public relations disaster for Mitt Romney, but helpful to online marketers using social media. The Romney campaign debacle making news headlines inspired a number of companies, such as StatusPeople and SocialBakers, to develop tools that help determine what percentage of a person’s Twitter followings are fake. If you’re going to be having people pass on your message to their followers for a fee, you want to know those followers actually exist so these analytical tools will be helpful.
The introduction of Twitter account policing sites hasn’t deterred people from dealing in the market for fake accounts and phony followers. They merely provide a tool for gauging the value of a specific social media marketer’s Twitter reach. However, the relief from wasting money one worthless tweet broadcasts may be short lived. The fake Twitter account market is also becoming more sophisticated. In many cases, high quality, fake Twitter accounts are almost impossible to tell apart from the real thing.
Those that sell fake Twitter followers claim that they can make up to a million dollars in a week. Fantasy you think! More likely overstating income, but then again maybe not. The industry is growing and spreading, not unlike fungus or cancer does.
There are dozens of services selling fake Twitter accounts. You can buy both phony Twitter accounts and followers through websites set up for the express purpose of selling them, such as InterTwitter, FanMeNow, LikedSocial, SocialPresence and Viral Media Boost. Likewise, micro job site such as, Fiverr, SeoClerks and dozens more have entire sections dedicated to the traffic in fake Twitter followers. Based on the number of accounts for sale through those services, and eliminating overlaps, it’s estimated that there are well over 20 million bogus Twitter accounts created to be sold outright, or to sell as another phony follower.
Fake Twitter followers are typically sold in blocks of 1000 to 1 million, with prices for 1,000 fake followers ranging from as little as a dollar or two, to as much as $18. It’s hard to get a handle on the size of the fake Twitter followers market, but the low is estimated to be $40 million annually, with the high end suggesting fake followers is a $360 million a year business.
The revenue stream for each fake account is two fold. First, each fake account creates a bogus follower that can be sold to multiple buyers. In fact, buyers prefer that the accounts follow others to make them appear more authentic. Web tools that try to tell fake followers from real ones often look at an account’s inactivity or its “following to follower” ratio. The more people they follow and the more active they are, the more authentic they appear. Then the account can be sold, usually when it has enough followers and tweets already sent out to make it look completely authentic. These premium accounts can fetch anywhere from $30 to as much as $100 each, depending on when they were first created, the number of followers it has, and how many tweets and retweets have been made.
As is to be expected of an industry generating at least $40 million, to as much as $360 million annually, an infrastructure and support industry has sprung up as well. Software to create fake Twitter accounts that fill in registration forms are now available. There are even programs that will include page headers and profile photos being marketed, creating fake accounts that look better and more authentic than real accounts.
Fake Twitter account resellers are branching out too, not only selling fake accounts and followers, but getting into the Twitter broadcasting business as well. Prices for Twitter broadcasting range from between five retweets a day for $9 per month to $150 a month for 125 daily tweets or retweets.
Since the most coveted fake accounts tweet or retweet constantly, have profile pictures and complete bios, and include a link to a website that appears to belong to the account, there are now cottage industries creating the product to meet the demand. The numbers are impressive and explain why people are dedicating their time to produce these types of accounts. It is easily possible to create 10,000 new Twitter accounts in a month manually. Many more if software is employed to handle registrations. Add automation software to manage multiple Twitter accounts, maintaining the tweeting, retweeting, favoring and replying and you have a business that virtually runs itself. By selling fake followers each bogus account earns a few pennies, and 10,000 of them being create each month adds up to a lot of pennies. In the following months the most mature of the fake accounts are offered for sale. The prices range from a couple of bucks, as was mentioned earlier, to usually no more than $100. The average seems to be $5 though. So, discarding the sale of fake followers as little more than covering expenses, the first month batch of phoney Twitter accounts would likely generate between $10,000 if sold at only $1 each, to as much as $50,000 if they all fetched the normal sale price. Of course that number could be much higher. So, is it any wonder why fake Twitter accounts and followers is a booming business?
Facebook, long known to be a haven for fake accounts used by web marketers and multi-level-marketers (MLM) now requires a real e-mail address be used to enable an account. Facebook goes further, requiring suspect accounts to authenticate their identities by inputting an authentication code the account holder can receive via either a text message or voice over a phone line. Each telephone number can be used only once.
Twitter does ask for an email address, but only limits account functions if the email address is not verified by clicking on a link in the automated email. Understandable since Twitter’s automated email confirmations are hit and miss at the best of times. This writer had to request the confirmation email be sent 4 times before one finally arrived. To prevent fake accounts, Twitter asks people trying to create multiple accounts from the same IP address to solve a “captcha.” Captchas are those puzzles that require people to type in a set of distorted letters and numbers. They’re relatively easy for humans to read and retype, but difficult for automated form fill scripts to decipher. However, new software has been developed that can beat captchas, and is already on the market.
A cottage industry has sprung up to service the fake Twitter industry. People are offering to fill in Twitter registrations using automated, form fill programs, and then manually solve the captcha puzzle. They do so for as little as 1 to 5 cents per registration. Another example of a service being provided to fake Twitter account resellers is that of an entrepreneur who hired freelance programmers to great software that can create up to 125,000 new accounts a week. The program is now being offered for sale to anyone wanting to become a bogus Twitter account reseller, sell fake followers or become a broadcaster.
To be fair to Twitter, the difficulty of telling a fake account from the real ones isn’t easy. It’s estimated that 40% of Twitter users only consume content. So what looks like a fake account may actually be someone who is on Twitter purely to follow family members, a favorite celebrity, a business or charity, etc. This writer has a Twitter account set aside to follow Twitter accounts belonging to news networks. I have never tweeted using this account because I have no followers. The profile photo is still the egg and my bio contains nothing but a link to my main website. Ironically, I check this account many times a day, far more than my Twitter account I use to interact with the Twittersphere.
What is certain is that the demand for fake Twitter accounts is not going to disappear anytime soon, based on even the low estimates of the potential money to be made. More accounts will be created, and the service industry serving those involved in fake Twitter account marketing, or the selling of bogus Twitter followers will continue to expand.
The only victim that will suffer from this low investment, high return business with such a rosy future is going to be Twitter. After all, it’s Twitter’s bandwidth and business infrastructure being used by all, with Twitter seeing zero in the way of a return. Worse, rather than opting to place ads on user homepages, Twitter decided to generate income using paid for tweets. So, the company is providing free access to it’s only asset, it’s user base, to competitors who are trying to sell tweet broadcasts too. Plus, they’re degrading Twitter’s asset by causing potential advertisers to question the value of a Twitter paid tweet campaign. After all, a follower without a pulse isn’t going to buy anything.