Bad Bots, Bad Bots, Whatcha Gonna Do?


I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but Twitter is infested with bots. Dirty, dirty, bots!

For the past couple of weeks, the Twitter spam bots have been out in full force, often hitting accounts with handfuls of new cleavage-baring followers per minute. There’s been a lot of conversation about it on Twitter and lots of complaints things are spiraling out of control – but that’s all been from users. With so many folks complaining about the rise in Twitter bots and Twitter spam, I can’t help but think we haven’t heard much from Twitter. Where are they and what are they doing about it?

Perhaps, I thought, I had just missed the announcement. I looked around.

Any word on the @twitter account? Nope.

Anything on the official Twitter blog? There were some great posts about translating Twitter into more languages, Twitter for Android and the #superbowl, but nothing about why my Followers page was starting to look like the Nevada Bunny Ranch (not linking that, sorry).

Houston, we have a problem.

While Twitter’s out denying Google and Twitter acquisition rumors, their site, the one these multi-billion dollar brands are dancing around acquiring, is going down the tubes. It’s happening because they’re not doing right by their users. It doesn’t matter how sexy you are to Google, Facebook, your mother – you have a problem when your core users can’t accomplish basic tasks. Right now the influx of spam bots and fake accounts hitting the site are hindering user experience. People are getting swamped with spammy followers, numbers are being inflated, and we have to watch which keywords we dropped to not get hit even harder. And nothing is being said about it.

Twitter, this is when you need to step in.

All brands inevitably reach this point; it’s the point where you’re either eaten by yourself or you take serious action.

We saw Sphinn do it. They noticed their site was being overtaken by low quality articles and decided to take it back. You may not love Quora, but they’ve taken steps to prevent becoming ridden with spam, upping the barrier for new user participation.

Twitter, on the other hand, seems to have abandoned the gates.

By allowing fake users to enter your site and get in the way of your core users, you open yourself up to a world of

  • Thanks to auto-follow bot (another awesome creation), fake accounts come in and immediately build up perceived authority, gaining hundreds of auto-follows a day. This fake reputation can then be used as capital to shill their own products, the products of others, or the accounts can be sold off to “social media experts” to shill themselves.
  • Fake users = increase in fake @ replies that people need to sift through, making it harder for them to find their real conversations and use the site.
  • Fake users (not to be confused with Kenneth Cole) manipulate Trending Topics, again, making it harder for real users to find the conversations they’re looking for, while also inflating perceived authority.
  • Spam bots often work in packs to manipulate Trending Topics, creating fake relevance and passing around low-quality (sometimes dangerous) content.
  • Fake users throw garbage all over the lawn that real users have to walk over. Until they get tired of it. And then the real users leave crying about how your site just became the new MySpace.

Twitter needs to protect the quality of its service, especially if they’re looking to cash in on its value via advertising or partnerships. Would adding a captcha or some other authentication to Twitter’s sign up process help? It would. For a bit until the folks responsible for the fake accounts would up the ante. But it would be a start.

Maybe Twitter needs to dedicate more resources to spotting these spam circles, and finding ways to infiltrate and remove them. Hey, if they need help they can use Erik Deckers’ post on 10 signs for spotting Twitter spammers. Perhaps there’s a way to create an algorithm of sorts that looks for patterns, unnatural follower/following rations, etc, and creates a Google-esque authority score.

Or maybe Roger Dooley is right and it’s up to USERS to be more proactive about reporting spam or to at least stop engaging with accounts that clearly aren’t natural.

Though not everyone agrees with that.

I don’t know what the ultimate answer is, maybe you do and you’d like to share it. What I do know is that it’s a critical
point. At the same time Twitter looks to be anticipating some major steps into adulthood, their quality is dropping. It’s time to get the crap off the lawn because people are only willing to step over your drama for so long. The “social media experts” may hang around, but the regular people, the people you need to push toward mainstream adoption, they’re gonna head back to messing around on Facebook.

The ball’s in your court, Twitter. Whatcha gonna do?

As a user, what do you want to see Twitter do? I want to know.

Your Comments

  • Wissam

    Hi Lisa,

    I think there was a Captcha on signup,

    and according @Joehall he noted that he found the captcha code on the signup form of twitter and it was not prompting on signups.

    maybe there was error in coding that might led to an increase in spam and..and..

    /* W.D /*

    • Lisa Barone

      Whether its supposed to be there or not — it’s not there when I go to create a new account. Or maybe it just kicks in when you start creating multiples. Not sure.

  • Michael Dorausch

    Funny that we both just got tweeted by a pizza bot after pizza related tweets. I’ve seen less of the bitchbots lately, much more of the standard egg avatar bots appearing in my stream.

    Using tweetdeck, I find the block and report feature works great, other than that not sure what to do on the user end to minimize spamming.

    • Ryan Jones

      It’s even worse with the mention of the word iPad. I get at least 2 tweet replies every time I mention an iPad. Just wanted to 2nd that tweetdeck’s block/report feature seems to work great for it.

    • Lisa Barone

      First, +5 points for the term bitchboth. ;)

      I usually keep an eye on my Followers and I haven’t seen that many eggbots hitting, I keep getting the ladies, so perhaps they’re targeting people differently. I’m not sure. Either way, I feel like a pimp when I scan my Followers page.

  • Jeremy Wright

    Anything that can be programed (captcha) can be reverse-engineered. The solution isn’t signup, but in monitoring for certain types of activity post signup, as there is only so much software out there to create and manage these accounts, and they all operate in a similar fashion.

    • Lisa Barone

      I agree the catpcha isn’t going to be a catch all but maybe it’ll at least ensure we only get semi-sophisticated spammers who know how to get around it. :) There has to be a way to crack down on it, even if it’s Twitter having to create something themselves to do it. Other sites have had this issue. The answer isn’t to feed your audience to the wolves, or the femmebots as the case may be.

  • Erik Deckers

    Hi Lisa,

    Thanks for the shout-out. I really appreciate it.

    I know Twitter’s big problem is they say they can’t write an algorithm that identifies some of the behaviors I picked out. But if I can spot the patterns, I’m sure the people at Twitter — who are way smarter than I am — can certainly figure out an algorithm to connect even a few of these behaviors.

    Even a database of cities that look for NAME_in_CITY type of names would catch a lot of these spammers.

    Thanks again. Nice article. I hope the Twitter folks read it.

  • Rob Chant

    I’ve certainly noticed that the spam bots on twitter that we’ve seen in this recent bout of activity have certainly been a higher “quality” than usual (i.e. look less fake) and they’re managing to get a fair number of followers accordingly.

    Having said that, I’ve been getting a few every day, and I can’t say it affecting much twitter experience really. Maybe that’s because I’m not popular enough on there to get inundated? ;)

    • Lisa Barone

      It comes in waves, I think. I’ll have days where I don’t notice them and then I’ll have days where I go to lunch and come back to 75 new naked women. It’s a bit much. I do agree the “quality” of spam is getting a lot higher, though I’m not sure if that’s better or worse. :)

    • Jun Baranggan

      i have the same observation. i get quite a few in a week. ‘coz i’m not popular. :D

  • Robert Brady

    Are increasing user numbers that valuable to Twitter that they’d sell out usability to make it look like they’re growing?

    I don’t notice simply because I don’t receive email notification of new users, I primarily use Tweetdeck so I don’t often get into the interface to see who my new followers are (I follow people I interact with) and I’m probably not popular enough to get more than 1 or 2 spammy @ messages a month (which I do report as spam). So I guess I contribute to the apathy about spam bots.

    • Lisa Barone

      I would hope that’s not twitter’s agenda here, but, it’s possible, I guess. If you’re trying to get bought out or acquired, upping your user numbers may be one way to go, though I’d like to think the buying company would be smarter than that.

      I still get email notifications because I like being able to tie the new followers to something that just happened (a post, a tweet, a RT, etc), so I tend to notice when I get slammed with 50 followers in the span of 2 minutes. Either Chris Brogan just said something nice about me again or there’s a lot more cleavage following me. Lately it’s been the latter. And I’m definitely guilty about not reporting them. It seems like that would take forever.

      • Robert Brady

        Reporting 50 at a time WOULD take forever. But how in the world do you manage all those emails with nearly 16,000 followers?

        • Lisa Barone

          My personal email account is pretty much a wasteland. I don’t even attempt to hit inbox 0. I may be up to 10,00+ unread emails right now. I use my BlackBerry to stay on top of ones I actually intend to respond to. It’s not pretty. :)

  • Claire

    Ugh, I’m so with you on this one. I’m pretty proactive about reporting spammers, but their tweets still clog all of my feeds. Twitter needs to up their barrier-to-entry, or at least provide some sort of spam filter. And as for @UrbanerMezei’s comment–seriously? What on earth is wrong with knocking spammers off of what’s supposed to be a legit service?

    • Lisa Barone

      In regard to @UrbanerMezei’s tweet my only thought is that it’d be an easy thing to manipulate. If you’re creating 500 spam accounts, it’s easy enough to get them all tweeting about legitimate users to report as spam. Sometimes “organized” efforts make things a lot spammer than if individuals act on their own. Just my two cents.

  • Michelle Lowery

    Never before was it more apt: GET OFF MY LAWN! :-D

    The spam bot issue seems to come in waves. We’re in a swell right now. They’ve been an issue at least since I signed up a couple of years ago, and I’m willing to bet they were around before then. Twitter’s failure to do anything about it (or at least, anything effective) is an ongoing problem. While they’re screwing around with the new retweet function, New Twitter and trying to make things look attractive, both aesthetically and to potential buyers/investors/advertisers, the service limps along at half its potential because of the spam problem. They continue to “fix” what’s not broken while ignoring what is.

    I firmly believe if they’d just put all the prettying up on hold and put all their energy and skill into addressing the spam problem, they could have it licked within a month, tops. But like anything else, as long as people continue to use it despite its problems, there’s not much incentive to do that. If we all quit using Twitter tomorrow and refused to go back until the spam was gone, that might get some results. But figure the odds of that happening.

  • Adam Sherk

    I’ve had a ton of these Bunny Ranch inspired fake account follows this week. I thought I’d suddenly become a ladies man or something…

  • Matt Soreco

    Wait. So all of these scantily clad babes who are following me aren’t real? :-(

  • JadedTLC

    Lisa, I hope Twitter reads this post. I hate having to go to these fake accounts and block them (which errors out about 75% when I report for spam). I have a feeling that twitter thinks I am spamming report for abuse, when instead, the bot accounts are the real spammers.

    I’m annoyed as well, since I’m not into chix, myself. It’s not like these are hot guys or anything. But that’s an entirely different conversation.

  • rick

    I’m not sure this is that hard, but the straightforward solutions might annoy people too. It strikes me that 2 things would minimize this. First, eliminate mass following. Allow the first batch of followers to be, say, 100 or so and subsequent follows are limited to something like 50/day. Second, let people like Lisa who get enough of these to matter to turn on a “confirm followers” feature. She’d stil get the emails, but the bots would not auto-follow… so they’d get no benefit. Leave the default as it is, but give people who get lots of bots a way for them not to pollute the followee’s stream.

  • Ivan Walsh

    I’d pay for a premium service.

  • Nick

    Nobody likes spam. Twitter has made people dependent on its capability and has done nothing to protect their users’ online citizenship. Rectify rather than apologise.

  • Laura Crest

    I am 100% with you on this — I’ve been dogged and spammed from soft-porn to Justin B. addicts. Jill Whalen wondered whether the motive was to crash Twitter not too long ago, with the spamming onslaught of followers that have no business following. The latest I endured was this F4F junk to do with a that annoying Justin kid. And yes, ladies, your cleavage is not, ah, appreciated. And yes, gentlemen, nor is your banana, thank you.

    And yes, you’d think there would be a way, an algo, for Twitter to get a handle on this before it really does bring it down. At the very least, Twitter has got a small reputation management problem that should be addressed before it implodes.

    Thanks, Lisa, for bringing this up — it must be obvious that you are not alone!

  • Gabriele Maidecchi

    In my little, I noticed the problem as well, especially in fake @ mentions for no apparent reasons. The “12345” kinda users always been there for me, and probably due to my account not being super-popular I have not noticed a particular increase lately.
    However I see how this is starting to become a problem, even if I am not really sure how it could be solved in the long-term, even captcha codes are somewhat of a cheap trick, since much of the spam still has some human interaction on the spammer’s side anyway.

  • Chris Reimer

    I am so glad this is starting to get our attention. Spam is choking Twitter, scaring valuable users away, and is a massive timesuck for me. Twitter management needs to take stock of the situation and realize there’s serious damage being done.

  • Sherry Gray

    I tweeted out the word porn. The resulting deluge was not pretty.

  • Steve

    Twitter always claims that the amount of spam on their network is in the low 3-4% range but then you look at a lot of the tweats and new users and that is not the story that you see.