Twitter and the Dark World of Paid Followers

Buying Twitter followers has been something people have been talking a lot about in the last 6 months. With it being easier and easier to do, and some people basing their entire careers on their supposed influence, the allure of double, triple or quadrupling the amount of Twitter followers someone has is too much to handle. This is evident by the growth in followers some people have had, in many cases, overnight. And while everyone suspected as much, there was never any true proof of it.

Until @StephanieFusco blogged about a website that actually makes a pretty accurate deciphering on what is real and what is fake. It also checks who is silent. Then it provides you with a score, how many are fake, how many are inactive, and how many are real. With these scores in mind, it’s easier to see who’s real and who’s fake.

This is where it gets exciting… obviously I checked a bunch of people out that I suspected of having bought followers, and no surprise… 30-50% of some common people’s followers are fake. No big surprise to me. I knew it was only a matter of time before these fake people were exposed for their bullshit behaviour and corporate abuse by lying to companies and saying they had a larger network than they truly did.

But, it gave me an idea… the idea of buying followers… where were people buying them? What did these fake followers look like? How quickly could you accumulate them?

So I set out as of about 8PM last night to test it out. I set up a new account @REALzachbussey and started buying followers. Overnight the account has grown to 26,000 followers with accounts that sorta look real, but not really… they have a real name, and a photo… but most of their usernames are a jumble of letters…. @laleks825 @nylacgugo etc. None have any tweets, no profile… and none have any followers. As I suspected.

Here’s where it gets interesting though: If you check out who these fake follower accounts follow, you learn some of the names of people who are paying for followers… and it’s a LOT of celebrities. Check for yourself: https://twitter.com/#!/nylacgugo/following,.. and according to StatusPeople….

Sean @iamdiddy Combs (his 7,300,000 are 25% Fake)
Actor @JimmyBennett (his 1,074,000 are 83% Fake)
Singer @MarquesHouston (his 851,000 are 85% Fake)
Whatever he does @JeffreeStar (his 432,000 are 63% Fake)
Rapper @RedCafe (his 394,000 are 79% Fake)
Sr VP of Shop.com @LorenRidinger (her 374,000 are 81% Fake)
Rapper @ThatsShawtyLo (his 203,000 are 81% Fake)

That’s bombshell in and of itself!

That said… there’s one other thing everyone needs to be aware of… buying followers requires no permission from the account. Essentially, you can buy followers for anyone. With or without their permission. As I’ve just experienced… just about an hour, I started getting mass followed by the same spam accounts that followed @REALzachbussey. Whoever bought these followers did so intentionally to try and lump me in with those in Toronto who have paid for followings… Fortunately with some quick action, I was able to stem the flow of follows. Here’s how…

1. Put your account on private.
2. Go to twitblock.org to quickly block and report for spam every account that managed to follow you.
3. Click ‘decline’ on every other follow that tries to come your way from the spam accounts… as you can see I have some work to do…

(UPDATE: I’ve learned that for all the followers you have that are ‘waiting to be approved’ when your account is private, disappear entirely if you set your account back to public.)

This exposes some major holes in Twitter. One’s that they will really have to start exploring. Back in the early email days, there was something called an email bomb which would overflow someone’s email inbox with emails. It was/is a serious issue and forced email providers to rethink how email functioned, and how to prevent it. Twitter now has this same issue, and they need to take it seriously.

1. If someone like Marques Houston has 851K followers, but only 128K are actual people – there is a problem with how many Twitter users the service actually has. Or Sean PDiddy Combs with 7.3M but there’s 1.8M fakes.

2. If anyone can go out buy anyone thousands of followers without any safeties in place, it can be very damaging to be portrayed as a faker (and time consuming for someone trying to fix it). This is the equivalent of a social media nuke.

3. Clearly, current safety measures to prevent fake accounts from being created are insufficient. Twitter needs to explore new ways to prevent spam, perhaps even examining the idea of a one time buy-in. $5 one time buy in FOR ALL USERS may prevent spam accounts from even being created. How many people have $125,000 around to set up 25,000 fake follower accounts?

I’m going to continue to explore this dark side of Twitter and the paid for followers and as I become aware of new issues, causes for concern or insight, I will certainly continue to add new blog posts on the issue. One thing is for sure, this is a problem that is only going to get worse unless Twitter acts now.

  • christine estima

    wow. i always suspected some of the major toronto tweeple to be buying …. i have worked really hard for every single follower i have!

  • matttnificent

    People pretty much see followers as currency nowadays. Can you blame them for wanting to show JUST how rich/”influential” they can be?Totally agree about more sophisticated measures being put in place. When an obvious spambot follows me, I feel sort of dirty. Nice post.

  • dohanley

    Interesting post, Zach. According to that service, about 3 MILLION of Justin Bieber’s followers are fake. 

  • zachbussey

    christine estima I think if you’re just doing what you do, that’s the way it should be. Once you start trying to pad your numbers, it’s the equivalent of doping. And that’s illegal!

  • zachbussey

    matttnificent Sure, but just like currency, we need to take measures so it doesn’t inflate unreasonably. Inflation has killed currencies in the past and surely it could do the same to Twitter too if they don’t take steps to improve their authentication. Just make sure to use that block and report button. This has convinced me we all need to be more diligent.

  • zachbussey

    dohanley I believe it! There needs to be a fix by Twitter. Small potatoes in Toronto aside, the major issue is global.

  • dohanley

    zachbussey You bring up a good point about what this means for the service as a whole. TechCrunch wrote the other day about how less than a third of Twitter users are inactive, but you have to wonder what the actual % of active/engaged users would be if you cut out all of those fake accounts. http://tcrn.ch/PbyGLN

  • atubanos

    I’m with christineestima . It’s a little upsetting to me to see that people are doing that, but you’re right, there have been a lot of discussions and speculation about this very thing regarding people in the Toronto scene. I’d hope that brands that are looking to partner with Influencers will be putting more consideration into the value of organically-grown followers, but who knows how much they’ll care. To big brands, it definitely seems like numbers matter more so than genuine engagement. At least at present.

  • zachbussey

    atubanos I think that people are really starting to wake out of their numbers based comas. I don’t think it happens overnight, but it’s tools like this that help to change the way and pave a better future… but that said, we do need Twitter to act as well to stem spam accounts. It’s only getting worse, and is clearly a very profitable business for these faux follower creators.

  • Fashionights

    This IS worse than faux fur! I love your fucking face to writing this –especially with some particular ppl in this city who have recently incountered a spike in followers. You sir, are my hero.

  • Absolutely fascinating. I’ve got to say, I’m happy my score was half decent. I wonder if this will be an incentive for people to actively monitor and clean their follower lists regularly.

  • zachbussey

    Fashionights No such hero. Just as curious as everyone else and a fan of honesty.

  • zachbussey

    AlexConde For sure! I think it’s things like this which improve experiences. 

  • kennynorton

    Fascinating discussion. To give you an idea of how easy it is..Fiverr is by far the most obvious one I think of.. this person promising 22,400 for $5. http://fiverr.com/twitter_adds/increase-13500-followers-on-your-twitter-account-in-few-hours-without-password. And these will most certainly ALL be bots. Interesting that nobody mentioned Twitter’s “Follower acquisition” service. Where you can pay to acquire new followers by targeting certain users, and you will then show up under “people you should follow”. A much more legit version of buying followers, typically a custom for brands. But I wonder what percentage of these still end up being non-legitimate or bots.

  • kennynorton

    Fascinating discussion. To give you an idea of how easy it is..Fiverr is
    by far the most obvious one I think of.. this person promising 22,400
    for $5. http://fiverr.com/twitter_adds/increase-13500-followers-on-your-twitter-account-in-few-hours-without-password.
    And these will most certainly ALL be bots. Interesting that nobody
    mentioned Twitter’s “Follower acquisition” service. Where you can pay to
    acquire new followers by targeting certain users, and you will then
    show up under “people you should follow”. A much more legit version of
    buying followers, typically a custom for brands. But I wonder what
    percentage of these still end up being non-legitimate or bots.

  • zachbussey

    kennynorton Indeed. Fiverr is where I started for REALzachbussey, and gained the 26,000 followers overnight. Other sites are showing results as well, with some actually providing ‘real’ followers… but mostly it’s follow for follow it seems.Twitter’s tool I imagine is definitely less bots to it… but I’m sure has it’s serious flaws as well.

  • summerxskin

    All of this is very interesting. I am just wondering if all these celebrities actually do buy followers. I checked my score and it said 3% of my followers are fake. Curious, I did a TwitBlock scan and noticed that a lot of fake profiles were in fact following me… I never bought them nor have I ever made fake profiles, so why are they following me? Maybe something triggered these bots to follow me, who knows. But I’m thinking if I had millions of genuine followers, I’m sure there would be twice as many bots following me too because I would be ranked high on Twitter.So it’s confusing for sure, but still very fascinating and I like that you’re exploring this!

  • zachbussey

    summerxskin You’re naturally going to have some bots follow you… they do that to try and build accounts that they can sell. What you should do is just block and report any as they happen.Here’s the thing though… if you gain 90 real followers and 10 fake followers… that’s 10% fake…. Let’s say it’s 900,000 followers, and 100,000 fake followers… it’s still 10%. The number being so high might have something to do with being retweeted/interacted with lots. But it should still be a relatively lower number.That said… the above examples are followed by all the same accounts that followed the accounts that I set up and paid for followers. Which means they are paying for the same followers that I paid for. The bots are only following people who paid. Thus we know they pay for followers.

  • summerxskin

    zachbussey thanks for explaining that to me! I was wondering how the percentage thing works… I’m not very good at math, haha.And you’re right, it does make more sense that they are buying followers especially if the same accounts are following each other. That is crazy! I wonder if these celebrities are even aware of the fact their social media or PR person is buying followers on their behalf… Such a ridiculous Internet world we live in. What happened to authenticity?

  • kennynorton

    zachbussey I made a tweet about this “wannabe celebrity” Frank D’angelo – the guy makes the widely popular (sarcasm) “Cheetah Power Surge”. I found his twitter account last night after finding his terrible “paid programming” late night show – similar to a Jay Leno.. except he pays to have it run it’s so terrible, and uses it as a marketing tool for all of his companies. And I thought.. there’s no way he can have this many followers. They have to be fake. I looked at his followers and they all looked like bots to me. Someone had done the scan on him.. check this out 2% of his 265,000 followers are actually real. Pathetic.  http://t.co/246L8AXH

  • Zach,This is good stuff, man — I’m glad to see that there’s now a way to gain better insight into just how REAL people are on Twitter. I’m hoping to see some more metrics that show who’s REALLY influential in various industries and just how FAR people are willing to go to make it look like they’re the proudest peacock in the room :)PLEASE keep up the good work. It’s really needed!!!

  • jesswroblewski

    What’s the incentive for twitter to remove fake/spam/duplicate profiles? The more users they can claim, the more valuable they appear.Just recently, Facebook got hit with allegations of not removing fake accounts. Same deal. http://mashable.com/2012/08/02/fake-facebook-accounts/

  • zachbussey

    jesswroblewski Because on Facebook we have control over who our friends are. On Twitter, the only way to protect ourselves from this is to go private with our account. If we do that though, the Twitter firehose is begins to get tighter and tighter and eventually the flow stops.

  • zachbussey

    CaseP Thanks Casey! I’ve got some other things in the works. :)

  • jesswroblewski

    zachbussey That’s only a problem for twitter if the companies that provide ‘influential’ twitter users with perks in hope of some coverage start investigating these ‘influencers’ and their followers to see what their legitimate influence is. Same for celebrities and their PR/social media people, although I doubt Justin Bieber or Lady GaGa care if they’re followed by 30% spambots.Unless there’s significant backlash from companies and celebrities, twitter has no incentive to do anything about it. Like I said, why lower their user numbers? Twitter has to start making money for its founders at some point.

  • zachbussey

    jesswroblewski Twitter currently makes a ton of money based on the firehose. They sell access to the firehose to different companies and the price is based on how much data is consumed. If this keeps up and people privatize their accounts, this damages their business. Everything is connected, and everything has importance, but I’d think the old saying ‘Quality, not Quantity’ has value… even in social media.

  • jesswroblewski

    zachbussey I agree re: quality vs quantity.However, until twitter’s bottom line is threatened or there is a significant amount of public backlash, there will be no changes.

  • zachbussey

    jesswroblewski Agreed. But it’s something they must surely be looking at right now… and if they aren’t, then there’s some major problems there. Failure to plan is planning to fail.Hopefully I’m not the only person who’s writing things like this over the next while.

  • FitFannies

    OMG that site is the best. Have always wondered how some ppl suddenly gained so many followers. Question answered and caught some ppl. Thnx for this!

  • zachbussey

    FitFannies Credit to StephanieFusco as she’s the one who turned me onto the site initially. :)

  • Sparkle_Agency

    Scammers! I knew it in my gut some people are not to be trusted. They don’t appear to have the social media knowledge or abilities to build up such a large following and yet they were calling me for advice. I’m now addicted to this site… and tempted to out the FAKERS! Especially those who run “media” companies where they are selling their “audience”. Thanks zachbussey & stephaniefusco for bringing this up. I’ll link to you in my own analysis blog post about the cost of fake accounts.

  • Sparkle_Agency shout it out when you get the analysis put together — I’m putting a post together right now with some thoughts I’ve had on the long-reaching consequences from this, and it’s always helpful to have a variety of perspectives to inform from :)

  • FitFannies We should share notes — see if you caught anyone I haven’t got on my radar yet :P

  • FitFannies

    CaseP Oh ppl I’ve caught aren’t big celebs or anything lol. Just sum ppl in my field or similar running their own business. Not gonna call them out or confront them cuz I never wanna “knock someone’s hustle” lol.

  • LaurenONizzle

    Thanks for twitblock. I’ve got tons of spam followers that I need to block through Tweetdeck almost every morning (example: https://twitter.com/donjeffers). For some reason, the blocks only last about a week and then Twitter lets them back into my feed. From what I’ve learned about bots in my reading, the more you Tweet with certain keywords, the more likely you are to pick up spambots. They’re a bitch to get rid of. 

  • Nock4Six

    This is the equivalent of lying on your resume, especially if you’re in some social media role based on your ‘influence’. It’s also pretty pathetic. Not only are people buying followers, but worse – they measure their own self worth by the number of followers they have, fake or not. So what is the cut off for determining bought followers? 10%? I figure anyone with a number higher than that in fake followers have purchased them. Oh the back paddling. I love it.

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  • KeriBlog

    My favourite post of yours to date. I have been saying this for years.I’d meet with people and companies, “well Keri, there’s other bloggers with larger numbers” and I’d counter with, “yes but mine are highly engaged, quality over quantity, have you scrolled through my list to see who those followers actually are?”.Of course not. They just want numbers. To which I’d always reply, “okay, I’ll go buy some on the black market, see you in a few days with 20k more of whatever it is you want”. Big eyes back all aghast, to which I’d roll mine and see ya later ye of little foresight.I think people forget: the internet hasn’t changed business, just the way we reach people to do business. Leads still need to be generated and converted into sales.What I’ve never understood is how you can think buying followers is a good idea, because now all your numbers are diluted, those leads you are trying to generate seem smaller because your follower number is higher, it’s working against you in the long run.Kay I’m getting rambling-y here, I’m done, thanks for blogging this Zach.Oh, my stats are: 2% fake, 89% good.

  • zachbussey

    Based on what I’ve seen, 5% fake is reasonable for most accounts…. 10-15% if they follow back everyone that follows them… Anything higher feels like a purchase or other ways of artificially inflating follower counts… Such as follower trains.

  • zachbussey

    Based on what I’ve seen, 5% fake is reasonable for most accounts…. 10-15% if they follow back everyone that follows them… Anything higher feels like a purchase or other ways of artificially inflating follower counts… Such as follower trains.

  • zachbussey

    Yup it’s been a discussion I’ve had with companies to. But now the conversation starts to end and the proof is in the pudding. (I never understood that expression and what it means…) This requires diligence by you and I and others… Companies seeking to work with people like us… Twitter… And the people who bought followers to spend the time clearing them if they want to redeem themselves from this red mark. It also means people caught in the crossfire as was attempted against me yesterday to invest time in cleaning up the anger of others.

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  • emiliafarrace

    i found it especially interesting sneaking in and catching some self-proclaimed prominent toronto bloggers with some pretty (non)surprising high fake and inactive score percentages.great work zach …i hate spam followers! 

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  • Sparkle_Agency

    Faux Fur is good. Better than real fur in my opinion. Fake followers are bad.

  • Sparkle_Agency

    CaseP OK Casey it’s coming only 1 exposure of someone who invoiced me for a “publicity”  radio show appearance without giving me a chance to look at audience #’s or what the invoice covered. The whole thing was weird and now I know why! Scam.

  • Sparkle_Agency

    CaseP Actually it’ll be two different posts, one the alternative which is much more slow and real, and the other about the COST of the fake accounts. Keep in mind, Twitter now sells sponsored/promoted Tweets and accounts. Do the buyers know how many fake accounts they are paying to advertise to? It could cost Twitter a lot of lost advertising/sponsors in the end.

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  • wonderwall7

    Great article. Count me in as one of your new real followers on Twitter. :)

  • zachbussey

    wonderwall7 Haha thanks for reading and the follow. :)

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  • FitFannies

    WHOA… ok, so I checked out a lot of TO ppl on Status People when u first posted this including @jstaffz. At that time (which was only just a few days ago), his over 480,000 followers were slightly over 80% fake. Anyways, I decided to follow him today & he tweeted from Status People that 0% of his followers are fake. I checked him out again on Status People today & apparently, 0% of his followers are fake. This change happened in just a matter of days! I know he really wants that “verified check” on Twitter. My point is… there MUST be a loophole somewhere…

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  • ryancox

    This was awesome. It was linked from this Fast Company piece (http://www.fastcompany.com/3000359/buying-twitter-followers-beware-statuspeople-service-exposes-social-medias-black-market) but I thoroughly enjoyed your blog. I’ll be checking back. Good stuff REALzachbussey.

  • zachbussey

    ryancox Haha, thanks for checking in Ryan! I’ll send a follow your way on Twitter! 

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  • sassygirlcanada

    This is awesome. Thanks again for another great post, and for the valuable information on how to determine ‘real’ vs ‘fake’ people. :)

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  • MarkJohnson5

    Awesome article. I thought that all bought follwoers were fake ‘zombe’ inactive accounts? How come this article mentions that it is possible to buy fake followers from real people without their permission? isn’t that hacking?

  • MarkJohnson5

    I’ve been putting together all the information I Gather about Fake
    Followers and will certainly use your article as inspiration for my next
    blog post on http://www.fakefollowerstwitter.com. Thanks!

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  • Kadano

    StatusPeople is not reliable. I have 1500 followers, tweet about rather obscure video game things and only get followed by video game nerds (like myself). My result is 25% fake and 30% inactive. Those 25% aren’t fake, they are simply lurkers—people who use Twitter passively to see what’s going on in the scene.
    I also checked some more popular online contacts, and all of them had similar percentages.