1:07pm

Thu September 19, 2013
All Tech Considered

How To Spot And Outfake Bogus Twitter Followers

Originally published on Thu September 19, 2013 3:15 pm

If you're on Twitter, you might want to think twice before bragging about all those followers you've been racking up. Some of the people who follow you might be fake — and there are now websites designed to expose them.

NPR's product manager for social media, Kate Myers, talks to Tell Me More's Michel Martin about how to spot fake accounts, why they might be following you and what you can do to stop them.


Interview Highlights

On tallying fake Twitter followers

These apps look at a sample of your followers ... for accounts that either have a very few number of followers or a very few number of tweets, and they say those accounts are probably fake. They look at other accounts that haven't tweeted in the recent past, and they say maybe these accounts were active and were real at one point but are no longer.

And they look at the rest of the followers, and they say these are people that are active and are interested in what you have to say — and those are the "good" accounts.

On @TellMeMoreNPR's followers

I ran, in preparation for this, a couple of NPR's accounts through one of the tools provided by a company called StatusPeople. I ran my account, I ran Tell Me More and I ran NPR's Code Switch account, and I found that all three of our accounts actually have a very high percentage of real "good" followers.

And the reason I would say for that is that we actually participate in conversation. We pay attention to the issues that matter to us. So this week, you guys have been talking about Latinos on social media and Latinos in the media in general, you spent a lot of time talking about education, and you guys actually participate in the conversation.

We have a couple accounts — for instance, NPR News and NPR — that just do more broadcasting of the news. They don't do as much conversation among the followers, and so we found that those accounts have a higher percentage of fake and inactive followers, closer to 46 percent (for @NPR) or 35 percent (for @NPR News) "good" followers.

On how to spot a fake account

People do definitely pay people to follow them to pump up their numbers. Websites like fiverr.com sell 1,000 fake followers for $5. So these companies will actually create fake Twitter accounts that follow a bunch of people and may put out some fake tweets to show that they're "real." But if they're not really followed by that many other people, then chances are you can take a look at them and say those are actually fake Twitter accounts.

I can say that at NPR, we have not bought any followers for any of our accounts. ... Fake followers follow a bunch of accounts to try to pretend that they are legitimate accounts.

On measuring Twitter reach

When we take a look at the quality of accounts on Twitter, we still take a look at the number of followers as a proxy for how much impact they have. Where I would like to see us go is actually measuring success based on what impact you have on the conversation, not how many followers you have.

So you'd take a look at who are you talking to, who's talking back to you, who is retweeting you, who is sharing your information, or who is sharing what you have to say.

On avoiding spam and other impostors

Twitter has always had a problem with spam. In fact, the last Twitter chat that we did — for Tell Me More, I should say, the NPR Ed Chat a few weeks ago — we found it got popular enough that people that were actually selling Twitter followers started spamming the Twitter hashtag for NPR Ed Chat.

So we found that some of these fake accounts exist to promote other products on Twitter, in an attempt to get people like me and people like you to click on them, or buy, or potentially even give away our personal information, and then be turned into spambots ourselves.

There are tools out there that allow you to block some of these fake followers, but I'll tell you what I do. ... When I see followers that are very obviously spambots or fake and I get a notification that they're following me, I'll often block them or report them to Twitter.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, we'll speak with an exciting new friend on Sesame Street. Ismael Cruz Cordova plays Mando. We'll find out why he loves his new character as much as your kids will. That's in just a few minutes. But first - and you can tweet this - if you're on Twitter, you might want to think twice before bragging about all those followers you've been racking up. That's because some of the people who follow you might be fake, and there are now websites to expose them. Kate Myers is with us now to tell us more about this. She's NPR's product manager for social media. Welcome, Kate.

KATE MYERS, BYLINE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So tell us about these websites and apps that actually find the fake followers. How do they work?

MYERS: So these apps look at a sample of your followers. What they do is they look for accounts that are - either have a very few number of followers and a very few number of tweets, and they say those accounts are probably fake. They look at other accounts that haven't tweeted in the recent past, and they've said maybe these accounts were active and were real at one point but are no longer. They look at the rest of the followers, and they say these are people that are active and are interested in what you have to say, and those are the good accounts.

MARTIN: Now, do you have to access these, or they're just kind of roaming around waiting to be asked?

MYERS: So these...

MARTIN: Are these like the surveillance cameras out there, or is this like calling your, you know, best friend to find out if you really did mess up?

MYERS: No, these tools - these tools, you do have to ask if - to take a look at how many fake followers you have. There are - you can, when you sign up for one of those tools, take a look at how many fake followers that you have. But I can also look and see how many fake followers that you have, Michel, and how other - others in the space have...

MARTIN: Well, anticipating that - 'cause, you know, we like to get our bad news up front - we started with our own TELL ME MORE handle - @TELLMEMORENPR. We put it in one of the websites. It says that 11 percent of our followers are fake, 29 percent are inactive, but 60 percent are good. Is that a good number? How'd we do?

MYERS: Yeah, we found - I ran, in preparation for this, a couple of NPR's accounts through these - through one of the tools provided by a company called StatusPeople. I ran my account, I ran TELL ME MORE and I ran NPR's Code Switch account. And I found that all three of our accounts actually have a very high percentage of real, good followers. And the reason, I would say, for that is that we actually participate in the conversation.

We pay attention to the issues that matter to us and we - so this week, you guys have been talking about Latinos on social media and Latinos in the media in general. You guys spend a lot of time talking about education, and you guys actually participate in the conversation. We have a couple accounts - for instance, NPR News and NPR - that just do more broadcasting of the news. They don't do as much conversation among the followers, and so we found that those accounts have a higher percentage of fake and inactive followers, closer to 46 percent or 35 percent good followers.

MARTIN: Oh, what a relief. OK, so thank you to real people following us. We appreciate it. What about - who are these fake followers, though? I mean, are they really fake, or do they just get bored or check out? Or is it - you know, I read a piece about how at one of the - the Bolshoi Ballet, that they've actually - some of the dancers - it's actually been a tradition. They've actually paid people to sit in the audience to applaud for them.

MYERS: Yeah, and...

MARTIN: Is it that kind of a situation, where people actually pay people to follow them to pump up their numbers?

MYERS: People do definitely pay people to follow them to pump up their numbers. Websites like fiverr.com sell 1,000 fake Twitter followers for $5. So these companies will actually create fake Twitter accounts that follow a bunch of people and may put out some fake tweets to show that they're real. But if they're not really followed by that many other people, then chances are you can take a look at them and say those are actually fake Twitter accounts.

MARTIN: Why would they do that? Why is that, for bragging rights or why?

MYERS: Because we still - when we take a look at the quality of an account on Twitter, we still use the number of followers as a proxy for how much impact they have. Where I would like to see us go is actually taking - measuring success based on what impact you have on the conversation, not how many followers you have.

MARTIN: How would one do that?

MYERS: So you take a look at who are you talking to, who's talking back to you, who is re-tweeting you, who is sharing your information or who is sharing what you have to say.

MARTIN: Why would fake followers follow us? We don't pay people.

MYERS: No, we don't, and I can say that NPR - we have not bought any followers for any of our accounts.

MARTIN: Yeah, so why would we have fake followers?

MYERS: Fake followers follow a bunch of accounts to try to pretend that they are legitimate accounts that follow accounts that other people follow.

MARTIN: Wow, OK. Well, what about spam? I mean, I think a lot of us have had the experience of having somebody like - I don't want to pick on anybody in particular - but, you know, advertising, like, vacation homes or something like that or products to enhance your sex life and stuff like that. What's that all about? How does that happen?

MYERS: Well, people...

MARTIN: It's spam, right?

MYERS: Exactly, and Twitter has always had a problem with spam. In fact, the last Twitter chat that we did for TELL ME MORE, I should say - the NPR Ed Chat a few weeks ago - we found it got popular enough that people that were actually selling Twitter followers started spamming the Twitter hashtag for NPR Ed Chat. So we found that some of these fake accounts exist to promote other products on Twitter in an attempt to get people like me and people like you to click on them or buy or potentially even give away our personal information and then be turned into spambots ourselves.

MARTIN: Is there anything you can do to keep your fake followers to a minimum?

MYERS: So there are tools out there that allow you to block some of these fake followers. But I'll tell you what I do is I do - when I see followers that are very, obviously spambots or fake and I get a notification that they're following me, I'll often block them or report them to Twitter.

MARTIN: Kate Myers is NPR's product manager for social media. She joined us in our studios here in Washington, D.C. Kate Myers, thanks so much for joining us.

MYERS: Thank you.

MARTIN: And I know you're real.

MYERS: I am.

MARTIN: Yeah.

MYERS: So are you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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