Rage Against the Retweet Machine

The RetweetGate

Kudos for The New York Times for breaking the story on fake Twitter followers becoming multimillion-dollar business! We have noticed the same phenomenon with @TheNextWeb’s exceptionally high RT volumes using our twheel™ Twitter app, and have recently been collecting data on @TheNextWeb and it’s peers in the world of technology blogs to investigate how retweeting behavior differs between the sources.

White bars indicate the amount of retweets a tweet has received

White bars indicate the amount of retweets a tweet has received

twheel™ uses retweets for visualizing the traction each tweet has received from others. You can read more about twheel™’s design principles here.

We performed a set of studies by creating a simple twitterbot with Google Apps Script that pushed the retweet counts to a Google spreadsheet.

We ran the first study on March 20th, 2013, where we tracked 10 tweets from Wired, The Verge, Gizmodo, CNET, The Next Web, GigaOm and Engadget. The retweet accumulation samples were checked every 15 minutes for a 24 hour period.

retweet_faceoff_round_one_small

To confirm our findings, we made another study where we compared 13-25 tweets from The Next Web and Techcrunch (April 3rd) and Pete Cashmore and BGR (April 8th). In both of these studies the retweet accumulation samples were checked every 5 minutes for 24 hours.

retweet_faceoff_round_two_small

 It doesn’t take a genius to spot the unnatural behavior of The Next Web’s retweet accumulation graph. While The Next Web published a lengthy take on why fake followers aren’t worth the risk of losing credibility, they clearly aren’t following their own advice.

The averages are calculated from the Tech Blog Retweet Face-Off (Round two) data.

The averages are calculated from the Tech Blog Retweet Face-Off (Round two) data.

What is the benefit of using bots?

1. Reach a wider audience

Fake follower bots help you get your message to reach a wider audience. In the New York Times’ article The Next Web’s Zee Kane talks about the whole retweet thing being the serendipitous result of experimenting with their own TNW Labs product spread.us, which claims to provide a service that lets you post tweets on behalf of your colleagues, friends, and fans. The aim of the service is to “Create massive social reach together”. This sounds like a social media marketers dream, but how do Cilia Poon (@health_c_f_shop), Kristan Elverson (@pops260) or Bashir Ako (@LadanDaura) become the colleague/friend/fan of @TheNextWeb? Are they true fans, bots, or even hacked accounts?

Instead of reaching just their 872 000 followers, with the help of their bot powered fake colleagues, friends and fans The Next Web can reach multiple times larger audience than they have earned.

retweet average_chart_FINAL

2. Grow your social ego and influence

The amount of followers and the amount of discussion you can generate in Twitter are the key ingredients how Twitter itself and services like Klout.com define the sources importance and influence.

In Seth Stevenson’s excellent article he talks about his experience of buying 27 000 fake followers; ”I noticed that after I’d bought my zombie followers, the rate at which new, nonzombie people followed me seemed to rapidly accelerate.”.

Easy money. Fake it to make it.

Manipulating these metrics can also have a very potent money making effect. According to researchers quoted in the New York Times article the value of the fake followers market is somewhere between 40 and 360 million USD. Best fake follower providers brag of making upwards of 1 million USD a week. Is selling fake followers bigger business than Twitter itself?

Why doesn’t Twitter just kill the fake followers?

So why hasn’t Twitter taken action, even though spotting this type of unnatural retweet accumulation should be pretty simple? Perhaps, because over 80 million of Twitter users (40%) never tweet anything, so it might make business sense to have the 20 million fake follower bots make Twitterverse look active and social.

Also, it appears that Twitter has no way of recognizing bots from real humans. According to Twitter spokesman Jim Prosser “Forty percent of our user base only consumes content. What looks like a fake account to one individual could actually be someone who is on Twitter purely to follow people — like my mom, who follows me and my brother, doesn’t have a profile bio and has never actually Tweeted herself.”

Why are fake followers/bots so hard to identify?

Because, at the moment, social interaction is measured by tracking actions (retweets, tweets, replies, favorites and link clicks). All these tasks can be easily performed by a simple computer program. With a simple script and a little help from cheap indian labour, or perhaps even the elderly ;). There is no way to check if the actions are being performed by a real human with real motivations, or generated by a simple bot.

Is Social Media doomed to be overtaken by bots?

Creating fake followers is so easy that “a kid could bypass Twitter’s defenses”. At the moment, social influence is for sale. Buying followers and retweets is easy, cheap, and the risk of getting caught is minimal. Are we humans doomed to become a minority in the social media like Twitter? Is there anything we can do to stop the bots?

Yes, there is.

To identify a bot from a human, we need to start tracking attention instead of actions. This is what we are doing with our upcoming Twitter news discovery app twheel™ 2.0.

Reading behavior of a single twheel™ user. twheel™ tracks the time spent reading each tweet, creating a direct measure of user attention.


Reading behavior of a single twheel™ user. twheel™ tracks the time spent reading each tweet, creating a direct measure of user attention.

It’s time to fight back. The battle will start soon. Stay tuned to learn more @twheelapp @kallemaatta.

twheel™ -Against the Bots!

2 thoughts on “Rage Against the Retweet Machine

  1. Pingback: The Curious Case of The Next Web Retweet Curve | Technology

  2. Pingback: Trusting your business in current Twitter “analytics” is insane. | Fluid Interaction blog

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