The Rise of Social Media Spam – Multimillion dollar deceit

Following on from a worrying news article I recently discovered that dealt with the increasingly booming business of social media spamming and paid-for tweets, I was sent into a reflective bout of paranoia and concern, nervously viewing my Twitter feed with a newfound sense of suspicion; who are you really Guardian Sports News? Are you being paid for your anti-<insert football club here> bias? Are you really just an underpaid, overworked bot languishing in the dusty recesses of an Indian super-server? The issue of trust and social media was at the forefront of my concern, and it would seem that brands that monitor social media, analysts, and consumers themselves may have to become a little more scrupulous about the information they have access to on social networks.

The article in question deals with ‘crowdturfing’, an amalgamation of crowdsourcing and astroturfing. ‘Crowdsourcing’, obviously meaning sourcing information from the ‘hive-mind’ of the crowd, and ‘astroturfing’, less obviously referring to fake grassroots endorsement online. Crowdturfing is basically this on a large, industrial scale. Sites such as the Chinese Zhubajie offer to pay users to perform various activities online; from posting spam, to positive sentiment, to tagging posts, to creating entirely fake accounts to perform any or all of these nefarious activities. It’s already a multimillion dollar industry, and as with any ‘easy-money’ scheme, the appeal is obvious to anyone sitting around looking to make an extra few quid, which makes it worryingly likely to grow.

The increase in this behaviour has implications for the rest of us, from consumers, to marketers and analysts.

As consumers we are increasingly aware of the benefit and glut of information available on social media sites that can inform our purchase decisions, for example, searching for laptops on our favourite tech forum, or Twitter Searching for opinion on that night’s cinema listings.

For the most part, in this relatively early life-stage of social media, we trust the information we get back – it’s just some ordinary Joe like us, helpfully expressing their opinion. And even if they are extolling the virtue of the latest Sarah Jessica Parker rom-com then we can simply choose to ignore them. The point being that we may not necessarily share their questionable opinion, but for the most part, I think we at least trust that it is a genuine opinion, and that somehow makes it valid. Perhaps this is overly naïve, and perhaps we are still in the innocent early days of social media. Perhaps we have a lesson to learn, as it would appear that in the future, we’ll have to question the motives and opinions of this ordinary Joe/PR-minion of Sarah Jessica Parker.

For marketers and analysts, the issue means we have to be even more vigilant and methodical in our research and monitoring. Whilst I can see the benefit in automated tools within your monitoring dashboard that can immediately flag up suspicious profiles, it still seems to me that as the spammers become even more sophisticated and human, our analytics and methods have to follow suit. This ultimately moves us further away from automated tools, as issues of sentiment, semantics, and linguistics become even more tricky to understand and accurately apply to huge volumes of mentions.

Then there’s the question of whether or not paid-for mentions are even valid when doing your audit and analysis? Should they be ignored and scrapped, or taken seriously? To this I would say that if your competitors are dominating your industry share-of-voice when I do my crowdsourced research as a consumer, then it’s something you need to be concerned about. If the dominant share-of-voice is largely down to paid-for low-grade human spam, then it’s tricky to combat. Customer advocacy when it’s genuine and earned, is powerful and invaluable, if sometimes limited in scale. Customer advocacy when it’s paid-for and disingenuous, isn’t as powerful, but can be widespread and influential if done correctly.

Ultimately this will lead to ongoing sophistication and development of tools and processes that will keep the valuable source of genuine opinion and sentiment distilled effectively for us marketers, businesses and consumers. That maybe a long road, but is a good thing in the long run.






I’ll end on a handy checklist for determining whether that latest @ message or Follower you’ve received is a real regular Joe, or a cash-collecting minion of Spam. Do let me know if you have any extra suggestions in the comments, or by getting in touch at @thomcas. Unless you’re a bot, in which case, stop reading this and get back to work.

7 Ways to check if a Twitter user is actually spam:

Simply click through to their profile page and have a look for the following:

1. If you’re greeted with a timeline wallpaper of the same @message to 100 users – SPAM

2. If their username has more than 8 consecutive consonants – SPAM

3. If it seems 35 people have also been the 1000th person to mention ‘iPad’ and thus receive a free one – SPAM

4. If they haven’t sent abuse/witticism to a celebrity – SPAM

5. If their Bio is an inspirational quote – SPAM

6. If they haven’t moaned about a TV program/public transport – SPAM

7. If their picture is a beautiful woman, and their name is Andy – SPAM


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