Inside Social Media’s Black Market

You may want to think twice before accepting that friend request or replying to that new friend on Twitter. New research is shedding some light on the growing black market dealing in buying and selling fake social media followers and just what impact it will have on social media.

The reality is that it is extremely easy to buy fake followers.  A recent study by Barracuda Labs found 20 sellers of fake accounts on eBay alone. The research also found that 58 of the top 100 Google search results for "buy Twitter followers" sold fake followers, 40 percent of which were set up in the past six months. On average, the cost is surprisingly reasonable, costing around $18 per 1,000 followers.

While this issue is relatively new, it has been in the news more as of late since Facebook announced that 83 million of its accounts were fakes and Mitt Romney's Twitter account began to see large spikes in the number of followers.

"Fake users should be a huge concern to both Facebook and Twitter because of the threat they create to user trust, online security and the overall community feeling of the social networks," said Paul Judge, chief research officer at Barracuda Networks. "This obviously threatens advertising revenue as organizations begin to question the true visibility and reach of their ad campaigns."

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Boosting ad revenue by buying followers is among the most logical reasons for businesses to engage in the process since advertising is often sold based on the number of followers a company or profile has.  However, there is also an opportunity for people who create and sell these profiles to earn money from selling tweets and re-tweets from these fake accounts. It appears that this is exactly what is happening.

"Based on our studies, we noticed that 75 percent of people who buy followers have a Web address in their Twitter account," said Jason Ding, research scientist at Barracuda and lead researcher on the study. "That means they can buy these followers to advertise their website or Web page."

"Companies can create a lot of revenue by buying these followers," Ding said. "Right now, we don’t know how much or what percentage it can increase their business. The business is booming, though."

This trend, however, may have an even greater impact on the future of social media if it continues.

"If this trend keeps going, people will lose trust in the social platform and there will be less and less value for a company to utilize a social platform," Ding said. "If people keep buying and selling fake followers, the overall trust on sites like Facebook and Twitter will be gradually decreased so people will no longer trust each other on social media. It is going against this trust model that these sites were trying to build."

There are a few ways to spot fake accounts, though. Notably, a majority of fake profiles are less than three months old with the average age of a fake account being 19 days. Additionally, the average abuser who buys followers has 48,885 followers while the average fake account is following 1,799 people.  More information can be found in the infographic below that was composed by Barracuda Networks.

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