Inside a Twitter fake account

faketwitterOne day earlier this month, Jim Vidmar bought 1,000 fake Twitter accounts for $58 from an online vendor in Pakistan.

He then programmed the accounts to “follow” the Twitter account of rapper Dave Murrell, who calls himself Fyrare and pays Mr. Vidmar to boost his standing on the social network. Mr. Vidmar’s fake accounts also rebroadcast Mr. Murrell’s tweets, amplifying his Twitter voice.

Mr. Murrell says he sometimes buys Twitter ads to raise his profile, “but you’ll get more with Jim.” He says many Twitter users try to make their followings look bigger than they are. “If you’re not padding your numbers, you’re not doing it right,” he says. “It’s part of the game.”

Mr. Vidmar offers a window into the shadowy world of false accounts and computerized robots on Twitter, one of the world’s largest social networks. Surrounded by a dozen computers at his home overlooking a golf course near the Las Vegas Strip, Mr. Vidmar has been buying fake accounts and unleashing them on Twitter for six years.

Today, he says he manages 10,000 robots for roughly 50 clients, who pay Mr. Vidmar to make them appear more popular and influential.

His are among millions of fake accounts on Twitter. Mr. Vidmar and other owners manage them to simulate Twitter users: they tweet; retweet, or forward, other tweets; send and reply to messages; and follow and unfollow other Twitter accounts, among other actions.

Some entertainers pay for fake followers. But false accounts can be political tools as well. In 2011, thousands of fake accounts disrupted anti-Kremlin protesters on Twitter.

The fake accounts remain a cloud over Twitter Inc. in the wake of its successful initial public offering. “Twitter is where many people get news,” says Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. “If what is trending on Twitter is being faked by robots, people need to know that. This will and should undermine trust.”

Fake accounts thrive on Twitter in part because, unlike Facebook, FB -1.01% Twitter doesn’t limit users to a single account, or require them to use their real names.

Twitter’s terms of service prohibit “mass account creation,” and the buying or selling of accounts or followers. Last spring, Twitter helped a research team apply a filter that, for a time, blocked 95% of new fake accounts.

Italian security researchers Andrea Stroppa and Carlo De Micheli say they found 20 million fake accounts for sale on Twitter this summer. That would amount to nearly 9% of Twitter’s monthly active users. The Italian researchers also found software for sale that allows spammers to create unlimited fake accounts. The researchers decoded robot-programming software to reveal how easy it is for spammers to control the convincing fakes.

In April, Twitter and the researchers applied the filter. Mr. Vidmar says he remembers the day, because most of his fake accounts were deleted, and he couldn’t create new ones. “They cleaned house,” he says.

But Mr. Vidmar and others say the underground market quickly adapted. The researchers’ system flagged accounts with incomplete profiles, no pictures, and little activity. In response, Mr. Vidmar says suppliers now fill out more account details, add pictures, and tweet from the accounts before selling them.

That drove up the cost of fake accounts. But marketers and researchers say the black market is again thriving.

Just two weeks after the crackdown, Twitter caught only about half the suspicious accounts being offered by merchants previously identified as selling fake accounts, according to the Berkeley researchers.

Mr. Vidmar says one of his suppliers is offering 150,000 fake accounts for sale. “I could go buy fake accounts from about 20 different sources right now,” he says.

Mr. Ding, the Barracuda Labs researcher, says the fake-account market is “going very strong.” He and other researchers say Twitter doesn’t appear to be applying the Berkeley researchers’ techniques to root out other fake accounts.

Mr. Vidmar’s robots have helped make his clients “trending topics” on Twitter, giving them special mention on Twitter users’ home pages. The trending topics appear just below the “promoted trend” that the company sells for as much as $200,000 a day. The trending topics aren’t marked as “sponsored,” so they appear more genuine.

Rapper Tony Benson says hiring Mr. Vidmar to promote his account on Twitter is “the best decision I ever made.” Mr. Vidmar’s robots made the rapper, known as Philly Chase, a trending topic so often around Philadelphia that he attracted attention from local newspapers. Prominence on Twitter led to gigs, fans and ways to promote his videos, Mr. Benson says.

Mr. Vidmar uses software to follow tens of thousands of accounts for his clients, another tactic Twitter prohibits. Being followed prompts many Twitter users to return the favor, and follow his clients.

In September, Mr. Vidmar used software to follow more than 100,000 Twitter users in a week for the Australian rock band The Contagious; that boosted the band’s following by 20,000.

The band has a “verified” account, meaning it has taken extra steps to prove to Twitter that the account is real. – WSJ