The case of the Twitter spam I don't understand

April 27, 2012

It's probably not news to anyone on Twitter that Twitter has spammers (every popular service has spammers, it's a rule of nature). In fact Twitter has several forms of spam, mostly revolving around drawing your attention with @-mentions. Much of what these spammers are up to is pretty immediately obvious and thus uninteresting, which is the state of affairs I'm used to. With pretty much all forms of spam on all services, it's almost always pretty obvious what the spammer is up to and what benefit they hope to get out of their spamming.

But not always. Every so often I run into something that is clearly spammy, where the people involved are up to no good, but I don't understand what exactly they get out of their activities. On Twitter the spam I don't understand is certain sorts of follow-spamming, where accounts follow me without any attempt to message me or otherwise get my attention (some follow spam has relatively obvious purposes, for example to get me to look at the account's profile to see some advertising there). When I run into a situation like this, what it says to me is that I don't fully understand the service I'm using and its environment, and the spammers do. If spammers see some advantage to following my Twitter account without me ever following them back, then they understand Twitter better than I do; there's something about the situation that I'm missing.

(As I've said before, spammers are not stupid in the aggregate. If there are a bunch of spammers doing something, it is because it works; it achieves results that they want.)

The corollary to this is that if you run a service and you see spammers doing something mysterious on it that you don't understand, you probably have a problem. Unless you're absolutely sure that the spammer actions are having no effect at all on your service (ie the only thing they're doing is creating logfile entries in private logs), you should assume that the spammers have spotted something clever that you've missed.

(In my case I'm not sure I care enough about Twitter to go digging into what the follow spammers are up to. Note that Twitter is clearly aware that follow spamming is a potential problem, as I've noticed that I don't always get the email notices about Twitter accounts following mine.)


Comments on this page:

From 147.203.99.20 at 2012-04-27 12:30:03:

At one point (net-eons ago), Twitter had an option to automatically follow everyone who started following you. It was the polite convention of the time, as well, and I'm sure it played a part in Twitter's initial growth.

So, my guess is that they hope you follow them out of courtesy, and they can hit you with ads once they're in your stream.

-Brad (augmentedfourth.com)

From 146.6.208.14 at 2012-04-27 15:44:42:

I think there might be some information gathering. Where Google gets to read your Gmail to present highly-profitable targeted ads, other agencies might be relying on Twitter to do the same. Afterall, while only you and Google may read your Gmail, everyone can read your Tweets. The thing is they don't need to follow you to do this, so I'm thinking the following is just to create a convenient filter for themselves.

By gsauthof at 2012-04-27 17:08:19:

Perhaps such a spam-account follows random people for some time without any obvious spamming attempts just to evade some twitter-spam-detection-heuristic.

Maybe such an account is useful to be able to deliver more spam before being shut down.

Written on 27 April 2012.
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