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Booming ‘underground economy’ uncovered on Twitter as users buy followers

US presidential candidate Mitt Romney suffered some embarrassing accusations relating to his Twitter account this week, when researchers at Barracuda Labs claimed that an upsurge in his social network support was due to him buying followers. The evidence came via a ridiculous 17 per cent increase in Romney’s followers taking place within a single day - and the fact that over 80 per cent of the new fans belonged to accounts less than three months old.

This prompted Barracuda to look closer at the trend of buying and selling Twitter followers, which the firm describes as “blooming”, after its analysis revealed a “Twitter business [that] is growing very fast to form a series of underground markets.”

The group’s study began in May 2012 as it created three separate Twitter accounts and purchased between 20,000 and 70,000 followers for each. Within the top 100 Google search results for ‘buy twitter followers’, Barracuda found as many as 20 eBay profiles and 58 websites selling followers. Typical prices had ‘abusers’ (users who purchased followers) paying £11.50 per 1,000 followers, and with those in the market having an average following of 48,885 people, the amount of money changing hands was apparent.

Supplying just one average abuser with a following would thus earn the dealer over £560; supply many, and they had a business. In fact, having identified suppliers like @kashifrox who claims to add up to 150,000 followers to your account, Barracuda estimates a dealer can earn over £500 every day for seven weeks of selling (presumably before Twitter clamps down on the activity). The firm also notes that there are “numerous opportunities for expansion into other services”, such as selling tweets and re-tweets for additional profit.

So are these desperate users shelling out cash just to look more popular on social networks? Probably not. 75 per cent of abusers advertise a website URL on their profile compared to just 31 per cent of overall Twitter users. When striking partnerships and deals with other companies, a party appears much more attractive and worthy when sporting a large base of Twitter followers.

But as an abuser’s fake follow-base can be easy to see through, dealers apply techniques to make phonies more difficult to detect – such as following a mixture of normal and famous people and posting realistic tweets. These more carefully-cultivated profiles can cost significantly above the average price at around £35 per 1,000.

Unsurprisingly, buying and selling followers violates Twitter’s terms of service and of course devalues the social network as a whole. Barracuda notes that the site has been tracking and banning fake accounts for a number of years, but warns, “if they do not move faster and smarter, these fake accounts will continue to be created, blended into the massive Twitter population, bringing bigger and bigger impact.”

With the underground economy of Twitter exposed, social media titan Facebook may also want to pay close attention to these growing patterns. Company filings showed the network plays host to a staggering 83 million fake accounts; a significant proportion of its 955 million user base.