The Problem With Twitter

A lot of the shenanigans about the Brett Kimberlin Saga revolve around Twitter. As my Mind Map of The Tactics of Online Political Warfare shows, there’s online intimidation, sock puppets, fake boycotts, disinformation, threats, defamation, swarming and all sort of tactics that show up on Twitter.

Is there a reason that all this idiocy happens on Twitter? Why, yes! There is!

Twitter makes it very simple to create multiple anonymous accounts. 

That’s it in a nutshell. Any Tom, Dick or Randy with an email account can open a Twitter and nobody has any way of telling who created the account or where they are. Want to create 100 accounts? You just need 100 different email addresses and of course with GMail, Hotmail, Yahoo and a grillion other  ways to make free email accounts, that’s not tricky.

This leads to Twitter being chock full of accounts that are fake or anonymous, a situation which just isn’t good. As Seth Godin said way back in 2004, before Twitter was born:

Virus writers are always anonymous.

Vicious political lies (with faked photoshop photos of political leaders, or false innuendo about personal lives) are always anonymous as well.

Spam is anonymous.

eBay fraudsters are anonymous too.

It seems as though virtually all of the problems of the Net stem from this one flaw, and its one I’ve riffed on before. If we can eliminate anonymity online, we create a far more civil place.

And so Twitter is a petri dish of spam, fraud and skullduggery; a long digital hallway where bullies and liars run free, and good men die like dogs.

Add to that; there are tools like HootSuite and TweetDeck that make it super simple to manage multiple Twitter accounts at once and manipulate your world of sock puppets. Even the Twitter iPad apps makes it easy to read and post on multiple accounts. It’s also easy to automate tweets, add followers automatically and so on and so forth.

This allows people to do all sorts of other trickery, too. For instance, many people wonder how @BrooksBayne has 100,000+ followers. I don’t know, exactly and he’s not forthcoming about the subject. However, there’s an interesting article that Bayne himself wrote back in February 2009 entitled The Newest Way To Game Twitter – Fake Followers that may hold a partial answer. Brooks explains a method that people were using to get enormous amounts of followers very quickly.  Eventually Bayne says :

Some of you are probably wondering, “So what?”. I understand. For many people this wouldn’t matter. However, there’s more than one use case for Twitter. Some people really do use Twitter for business. In this realm, more followers means more bragging rights and the appearance of more credibility. The number of followers matters to some of us.

 Obviously. Did Brooks figure out a way to game Twitter? I wish he’d explain. Something weird is going on because the number of followers Brooks has has been steadily falling for a long time. Here’s a chart of the number of followers he has for the past year and you’ll see a steady, constantly downward trend. This is from, where you can see how you’re doing, too, of course…
 That’s not he way your follower count is supposed to trend. You usually GAIN followers over time. For comparison, here’s how my followers look for the past six months…

For the record and Scout’s Honor : I don’t do any of this sock puppet crap. I have no anonymous accounts causing mischief. I live my life online with an alarming amount of honesty and that done that for the last two decades or so.


  1. As I mentioned via Twitter, this post inspired me to go create a small “sock puppet army” just to see how easily it could be accomplished.

    The short version:

    It’s easy to maintain, but slightly harder to build than you might think because of Twitter’s rate limiting. Once you’ve built it (assuming you weren’t just trying to boost your follower count), you can use it to make targeted attacks against a group or cause that appear to have a huge backing of support even if that’s not the case.

    Although the actual account creation is weighed down by being difficult to automate, there are tools that can be used to make the manual creation virtually painless. The rate limiting also makes filling in details more worthwhile because it passes the time to keep you under Twitter’s RADAR. This has the perverse effect of making your fake accounts look more legitimate.

    I don’t think I can overstate how easy it is to use the network for nefarious goals once it is created.

    For the full writeup of my experiment, go here:

  2. I think people don’t exactly understand just how easy it is to automate the creation of a virtually unlimited number of sockpuppets and make them look completely “real”. All that is required is for someone to run their own email domain. Anyone renting a server in one of those server hosting operations can do this. The actual “user” can be nothing but a computer program. Now you have an unlimited number of email addresses because you own your own domain. You can use software to interface to twitter and create users. You can give these users “real” looking names or you can machine generate them using a series of words and numbers. You can locate people who tweet a lot but don’t follow people back who follow them (sort of important). You then follow them and begin to “collect” their tweets. Collect ones that are not directed to anyone, just blasted out to space and contain no hashtags. Save those. These are your tweet collectors. These accounts never actually tweet, they are just collecting random tweets from other people.

    Now you create a set of socks that ARE going to tweet. You have these follow you and other people in your “target” audience. Every once in a while these accounts will tweet one of the tweets collected by your collector bots. Nobody is going to notice that someone else made that exact same tweet a week or a month ago. But this gives these socks a tweet history that will look somewhat “real” to anyone glancing at their timeline. The primary purpose of these accounts is to follow you and others of your choosing. They also “retweet” your stuff. They act as a “megaphone” for your tweets and others of the group of your choosing making you (and them) appear to be more popular than they really are. If anyone sends one of these accounts a direct tweet, those can be placed into a queue for handling later because it isn’t a real person and can’t answer a tweet in real time, but you want to make them appear to be real people, you can place any tweets sent to them into a queue for handling by a real person later.

    You can create hundreds or even thousands of completely “normal” looking twitter users with software. You can create photo albums for them, practically anything. But these accounts will almost never engage in a real time conversation with anyone, their output will be more retweets than actual original tweets and if you search you might find the tweets they have made have been made by others before them.

    Actually, you can even “script” what looks like a real time conversation between socks again, under software control, so their timelines look even more convincing. Twitter is basically just noise. There are a few gems in there but it is 99% noise. It is very easy to “astroturf” with twitter and very easy to script “bots”. In fact, anyone with a little artificial intelligence schooling and some medium level programming skill can create very convincing “communities” of completely fake accounts.

    You can also create very disruptive mechanisms designed to shut down other tweeters, too, but I won’t go into those in public but I can create a mechanism that can basically shut down any tweeter cold and is VERY difficult to stop. In fact, it could be so successful as to possibly take down twitter if the software got out of control. And this can all be done in ways that can be practically impossible to trace back to its point of origin and would be nearly impossible to block. If I were twitter I would do something like require a 99 cent micro payment for accounts and allow no more than 6 accounts on the same physical address. I would send a postcard to the address given with instructions to activate the account. This gives a REAL name and a REAL address associated with an account even if the account uses a different name to maintain anonymity. It also prevents automatic generation of an unlimited number of accounts under software control as is possible today.



  1. Witness the Power of My Sock Puppet Army - [...] former liberal Lee Stranahan wrote a post titled “The Problem with Twitter.”  It’s insightful, and it’s worth a read,…

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