Meet the Bots which might bring Twitter down

spam-meAt @Twiplomacy, we have never been worried about fake followers following us and driving our follower count above the 50,000-mark. We simply ignore them and do not engage with them since our focus has always been on the quality of our followers. We segment our influencers by putting diplomats, journalists, the heads of state and government and foreign ministers following our account, into private lists for occasional Direct Message campaigns.

Over the past year, we have witnessed an increase in bots and strange accounts following the @Twiplomacy account. According to Statuspeople.com, 21% of our followers are fake, based on the analysis of a random sample of 1,000 followers.

We took a closer look at our followers and have added potential bots in this public Twitter list. Not all accounts were as open about their intentions as our friend @SpamMe123454321, but all shared similar traits. All accounts have strange Twitter handles, either jumbled letter and number combinations that no human would come up with, or first names followed by a random string of numbers which are clearly not birthdates. We identified 951 such accounts representing almost 2% of all our 52,000 followers and that might probably only be the tip of the iceberg.

So far, these bots are harmless and more than half have sent less than 10 tweets. However, they follow on average 865 other Twitter users but only have a median average of 17 followers each. Among the accounts most followed by these bots are, in decreasing order, @BarackObama, the @UN, @realDonaldTrump, @CNNbrk, @NYTimes, @NarendraModi and @POTUS, which all tend to attract their fair share of fake followers.

twitter-suggestionsThere is absolutely no indication that these accounts boost their follower numbers artificially. The most likely explanation is that these leading accounts are often among the 50 suggested Twitter accounts to follow when new users sign up to the platform.

However, this army of bots is likely to bring Twitter down or make the platform utterly unusable. These accounts boost the follower count of the most popular leaders and can amplify selected tweets, creating a false impression of influence.

There is a simple way for Twitter to demote these accounts without damaging its overall user numbers, by simply making it mandatory for all users to verify their telephone number as well as their email address. All accounts which don’t meet these simple requirements would then be ‘muted’ so that their following, likes or retweets are no longer counted.

Twitter could probably depreciate thousands if not millions of dormant and bot accounts, however it would clean the conversation for the rest of us and make the platform great again.

By Matthias Lüfkens (@Luefkens), Managing Director Digital, Burson-Marsteller and lead author of Twiplomacy.com