Twitter’s spam problem

There’s been an increasing amount of reporting about the underground economy that powers the sale of retweets and followers on Twitter, leading to some questions as to how popular the service truly is. With reports of 500 million registered accounts, what is the actual number of users on the service?

To figure things out, I tried to get a sense of how widespread the problem is and I used the top 25 accounts on Twitter, as reported by Twitter counter:

Name Account Number of followers
Justin Bieber @justbieber 37,156,888
Lady Gaga @ladygaga 35,866,584
Katy Perry @katyperry 34,610,671
Barack Obama @barackobama 29,396,747
Rihanna @rihanna 29,091,726
YouTube @youtube 25,885,816
Taylor Swift @taylorswift13 25,827,240
Britney Spears @britneyspears 25,424,014
Shakira @shakira 20,292,896
Justin Timberlake @jtimberlake 18,463,919
Ellen DeGeneres @theellenshow 18,146,995
Instagram @instagram 18,049,505
Oprah Winfrey @oprah 17,847,895
Kim Kardashian @kimkardashian 17,613,483
Twitter @twitter 17,553,144
Christiano Ronaldo @cristiano 17,272,956
Jennifer Lopez @jlo 16,451,048
Nicki Minaj @nickiminaj 16,216,799
Bruno Mars @brunomars 15,859,677
Kaka @Kaka 14,908,112
Selena Gomez @selenagomez 14,684,855
P!nk @pink 14,630,875
Marshall Mathers @eminem 14,172,763
Ashton Kutcher @aplusk 14,088,649
Demetria Lovato @ddlovato 12,929,805

This provided me with a good sample set of anywhere between 13 and 37 million users, or roughly 2-7% of Twitter’s 500 million registered accounts. Considering Twitter recently reporting that it had 200 million active users, we should be able to observe similar patterns in that data set, or 4-14 million active users.

To assess the percentage of active users, I used a tool called the Fake Follower checker by StatusPeople. When given a Twitter account, the system reports how many users it thinks are fake, how many are inactive accounts (ie. could be real accounts but do not have much activity) and how many are active accounts. Throwing our data sample at this, we got the following percentages:

Account Fake followers Inactive Good
@justbieber 18 24 58
@ladygaga 45 33 22
@katyperry 49 31 20
@barackobama 50 28 22
@rihanna 36 29 35
@youtube 49 27 24
@taylorswift13 44 32 24
@britneyspears 48 32 20
@shakira 44 29 27
@jtimberlake 46 31 23
@theellenshow 44 31 25
@instagram 30 21 49
@oprah 49 31 20
@kimkardashian 35 30 35
@twitter 50 27 23
@cristiano 46 31 23
@jlo 54 32 14
@nickiminaj 31 29 40
@brunomars 35 31 34
@Kaka 52 29 19
@selenagomez 34 31 35
@pink 49 31 20
@eminem 42 31 27
@aplusk 38 40 22
@ddlovato 43 32 25

or, in terms of real numbers, this is what it looks like:

Account Number of followers Fake followers Inactive Good
@justbieber 37,156,888 6,688,240 8,917,653 21,550,995
@ladygaga 35,866,584 16,139,963 11,835,973 7,890,648
@katyperry 34,610,671 16,959,229 10,729,308 6,922,134
@barackobama 29,396,747 14,698,374 8,231,089 6,467,284
@rihanna 29,091,726 10,473,021 8,436,601 10,182,104
@youtube 25,885,816 12,684,050 6,989,170 6,212,596
@taylorswift13 25,827,240 11,363,986 8,264,717 6,198,538
@britneyspears 25,424,014 12,203,527 8,135,684 5,084,803
@shakira 20,292,896 8,928,874 5,884,940 5,479,082
@jtimberlake 18,463,919 8,493,403 5,723,815 4,246,701
@theellenshow 18,146,995 7,984,678 5,625,568 4,536,749
@instagram 18,049,505 5,414,852 3,790,396 8,844,257
@oprah 17,847,895 8,745,469 5,532,847 3,569,579
@kimkardashian 17,613,483 6,164,719 5,284,045 6,164,719
@twitter 17,553,144 8,776,572 4,739,349 4,037,223
@cristiano 17,272,956 7,945,560 5,354,616 3,972,780
@jlo 16,451,048 8,883,566 5,264,335 2,303,147
@nickiminaj 16,216,799 5,027,208 4,702,872 6,486,720
@brunomars 15,859,677 5,550,887 4,916,500 5,392,290
@kaka 14,908,112 7,752,218 4,323,352 2,832,541
@selenagomez 14,684,855 4,992,851 4,552,305 5,139,699
@pink 14,630,875 7,169,129 4,535,571 2,926,175
@eminem 14,172,763 5,952,560 4,393,557 3,826,646
@aplusk 14,088,649 5,353,687 5,635,460 3,099,503
@ddlovato 12,929,805 5,559,816 4,137,538 3,232,451

Looking through this data, we find that, on average, popular accounts’ twitter followers break down along the following lines: 42.44% fake and 30.12% inactive. This means that only 27.44% of users in that population are active on the service. If we were to look at Twitter’s 500 million registered accounts, this would mean that a bit over 137 million users are active on the service, leaving us with a question mark around the other 63 million active users Twitter is reporting. One could assume that, as you move further down the list of users, the number of inactive accounts drop and the number of fake followers also does. Or could it be that the 63 million missing users in that count represent the population of fake accounts on the service?

We could try to look at it through the lens of inactive users. Twitter is reporting that roughly 40% of their registered accounts are inactive (since they have reported 500 million accounts and 200 million active users). This would mean that, among the top 25 most followed accounts, we have a more active population of followers, as only 30% are reported inactive. However, this also means that there is a 25% divergence between the two numbers. So if we were to apply the same logic to the Fake followers numbers, we may see that 31.83% of Twitter’s users could be fake, or roughly 159 million accounts.

… and if those accounts were acting as active accounts, we could be looking at an active population on Twitter of only roughly 40 million real users.

Why Twitter followers matter

One may think that looking at Twitter followers is a ridiculous endeavor. However, in a world where anything from reputation to credit worthiness is increasingly based on such information, it is important that we look at the source data and ensure its integrity. Today, one can buy Twitter followers by the thousands for mere penny per user. The fake accounts that plague the service are undermining it, creating an environment where one cannot necessarily trust the audience. If Twitter’s future is based on delivering audiences to advertisers, the company needs to do a better job culling its user base and going after those fake follower accounts.

Will Twitter clean up its act? At the current time, it seems hard to tell. The company has not made any indication that it sees the underground economy of follower sales and spam accounts as anything to be too concerned about. If anything, the company may actually be disincentivized from doing anything about it, as those fake followers make the service appear a lot busier than it actually is and appear to be narrowing the gap in user base between Twitter and Facebook.

But as it keeps delaying dealing with the issue, the problem will become larger and more ingrained, making it more difficult to deal with further down the line. Already, fake account creators have now figured ways to create profiles that appear legitimate on first pass. The reason for their working so hard to do so is that better looking fake profiles represent better sales for fake followers vendors (the murky world of followers sales has already divided itself into bottom feeders who will sell any kind of followers and “premium” vendors who claim to provide a guarantee that the followers they add are real.) The market is speaking but it is the same kind of murky market that created the spam that destroyed usenet forums, the spam that made it more difficult to operate email services, and the kind of dark SEO techniques that have gotten the likes of Google and Microsoft to spend millions to fight. Social spam, as it already exists on Twitter, will continue to grow and unless the company addresses the problem quickly, it may be the one thing that sinks it.

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