Skip to Content

Fake Followers for Hire, and How to Spot Them

It’s possible to buy a good reputation on the Internet for a modest price, but some are trying to put an end to that.

Given that Twitter followers and Facebook likes are one measure of popularity, it can be tempting to fudge the numbers. And that is cheap and easy to do, thanks to a willing cyber workforce dedicated to building fake reputations.

New research provides a fresh measure of the black market for creating false online reputations, but it also highlights a way to curb it.

“Crowdturfing,” as the phenomenon is known, is a combination of “crowdsourcing,” meaning recruiting large numbers of people to contribute a small effort each toward a big task (like labelling photos), and “astroturfing,” meaning false grassroots support (in the form of bogus reviews or comments, for example).

A team of researchers at UC Santa Barbara, led by Ben Zhao, coined the term three years ago, when they also showed that this constituted more than 80 percent of the activity, worth several million dollars, on two prominent crowdsourcing websites in China. Zhao’s group also found crowdturfing activity on several U.S. websites, including ShortTask, MinuteWorkers, MyEasyTask, and Microworkers. Several of the jobs posted this month on ShortTask, for example, ask workers to follow someone specific on Twitter, while others ask them to like and comment on a particular video on YouTube.

Now, in a new paper, Zhao and his team show a way to identify crowdturfing using machine learning software. The software learned to use 35 account characteristics, such as age and location, to recognize crowdturfers on China’s version of Twitter with 95 to 99 percent accuracy.

Zhao isn’t the only researcher studying crowdturfing. Earlier this month, a group led by Kyumin Lee at Utah State University published an analysis of Fiverr, a U.S. website where people post “gigs” they are willing to do for five dollars: paint a portrait, make personalized lip balm, write a press release, etc.

Lee and his collaborators found that nine out of the top 10 sellers on Fiverr were crowdturfing—selling Twitter followers, website traffic, or likes on Facebook. The top seller, who goes by the username Crorkservice, had performed more than 600,000 gigs and made at least $3 million in just two years, the researchers say. Lee’s group also developed software capable of detecting crowdturfing by analyzing key features of a gig; its accuracy rate was 97 percent. Fiverr did not return requests for comment.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

These exclusive satellite images show that Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway

Weirdly, any recent work on The Line doesn’t show up on Google Maps. But we got the images anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.