Why Did 9,000 Porny Spambots Descend on This San Diego High Schooler?

A voyage into the strange underworld of spambots, shady marketing, and non-human intelligence.
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Bots can be scary. This is not Olivia. (Shutterstock/mast3r)

It was around 5pm last Thursday when Olivia, a San Diego high school student, noticed that something interesting was going on with her Twitter account. 

A swarm of 30 women with sexy profile pictures had just followed her on the social networking service. "guys wtf 30 PORNSTARS JUST FOLLOWED ME WHATS HAPPENING," she tweeted to her 600 or so followers. 

Her friends started joking with her. One said: "I think they want you to join their profession." And it was a little funny. Weird, but funny. ("actually laughing so hard right now [emoji]," one friend tweeted at her.)

One minute she's doing homework and congratulating a friend on making varsity. The next, she's the center of the this swarm of porny weirdness. It was like the setup for a new Spielberg sci-fi movie. 

Olivia posted screenshots from her account. She wrote in perhaps ironic all caps, "AM I PAYING FOR THIS" and "IS ANYONE ELSE AS CONCERNED AS I AM." 

But... maybe being followed by pornstars would be the next trend at school? "why arent hundreds of porn stars following me," a friend tweeted. 

Olivia started to notice some patterns, though. Each new follower was following precisely six people and almost everyone else the accounts were following were "verified" by Twitter. Many of the verified were legitimately famous people.

Seriously: what was going on?

Shantal Roddam (@Allieqtzm) was a typical example of one of her new followers. Shantal was a "Friendly beer fan" from Butte. She was following:

@ESPN, the world's leading sports brand;
@MarsPhoenix, a long-dead robot on Mars;
@ReutersScience, the news organization;
@KingJames, Lebron James, the NBA star;
@AlexisMadrigal, your faithful correspondent;
and Olivia, a high school student in San Diego.

By 8:25pm, Olivia could announce, "I have hit 3,000 everyone 3,000 porn stars." 

At 9:05, she crossed 4,000. At 9:51, she hit 5,000. She changed her Twitter bio to, "5,000 pornstars follow me and idk what to do." (idk means "I don't know" for the acronymically uninitiated.)

A boy tweeted, to no one in particular, that Olivia was "officially famous as fuck wtf." Another said, "Let's be honest we all knew that Olivia was going to be twitter famous from the start." A third said, "New game: take a shot every time someone follows Olivia."

All the new followers had names like "Earlene Timperman" and "Valerie Wienandt" and their bios were like Mad Libs for lame social media wannabes: "certified food nerd," "Hardcore social media scholar Bacon ninja," "Typical tv trailblazer Hardcore introvert," "Bacon specialist Certified organizer," "Friend of animals everywhere Coffee enthusiast," "Coffee advocate Hipster-friendly analyst."

Hardcore social media scholar Bacon ninja.

They all hailed from seemingly random cities: Fairmont, Danville, Trenton. Never a state. Never a country. Never a joke.

Oh, and none of them had actually tweeted anything. 

* * *

Perhaps you have guessed what happened by now. These "people" were not people at all, but automatically generated accounts created by somebody with a bit of programming knowledge.

The thousands of new followers that Olivia got were spambots emanating from the same source. 

Now, if you are reading this story on the Internet, you have probably encountered spambots, or at least the spam that such bots generate. 

Generally speaking, the bots tend to follow really popular accounts. And they tend not to come in swarms of thousands but one or two at a time, maybe a few dozen at most. 

So the mystery remained: why was a San Diego high schooler suddenly a spambot magnet? 

I began to search through Olivia's followers looking for patterns.

The first thing I noticed: Olivia wasn't part of every bot in the swarm's follow list, but she was predominant. No other account that I could find had been targeted so often, not even Lebron James. 

There is an underground economy in fake-account creation, as Newt Gingrich discovered when his campaign was accused of buying Twitter followers. What people are buying, of course, is not real people, but robot-generated accounts created to make it look like people are more famous than they are.

This kind of bot normally just picks accounts from Twitter's suggested user list, the Lebron Jameses and ESPNs. But perhaps someone had tried to up its sophistication by including something some regular users. Or maybe there was some sort of bug in its "Who should I follow?" code. 

Other kinds of bots decide to follow people based on what they tweet, but looking at just a few examples, it was clear that there was no content connection between Olivia and the other people these bots were following. 

The second thing I noticed: the spambots were following a lot of golf caddies.  I couldn't explain that one immediately, but keep it in mind.

The third thing I noticed: Olivia wasn't the only San Diego high schooler. At least three other San Diego high schoolers, two of whom Olivia knows, were also targeted by the spambot. These kids, though, only got (at most) a few hundred spambot followers.

All this evidence led one of my followers, @001010110, to devise a wonderful new romantic comedy/Nico Muhly opera plot:

"Then there's the whole 'nerdy teenage boy creates botnet to impress a girl, follows others to cover his tracks' scenario. Poor kid who caddies at country club falls for rich girl whose family are members, pulls stunt to prove he's worthy..."

Which I, for one, loved as an explanation!

But then the bots started tweeting. 

* * *

At first it was just one here or there, like the early kernels in a bag of popcorn.

Soon, most of them were tweeting. Not excessively, but a handful per bot. The messages weren't going out to the famous accounts, but to regular users across the world. They typically looked like this:

A typical bot-driven ad.

While the words in the tweet changed from person to person, each one tried to lead people to tweevip.com. (Don't go there.)

Tweevip's IP address suggests that the computer running the site is located in Roubaix, France, in the north, right near the Belgian border. The same Internet address also hosts these high-quality websites. Most seem set up to capture similar types of bot-generated traffic (for example vineluv, gramvip, which would seem to target Vine and Instagram).

Other spam sites you should avoid.

The point of Tweevip is to get you to enter your phone number and name. When you do, the site sends you a text message that says, "MOVIE EXTRAS WANTED! Make money in the movies. All looks, No Experience Required! To register call 1877-590-5505." 

I called the number and confirmed with the representative on the phone that he was working for a site called Casting360.com. Meanwhile, he was aggressively trying to sell me their casting services.

What are they trying to get people who call the number to do? They want them to sign up for a $1.98 14-day trial, which gets auto-upgraded to a $34.90 monthly membership. 

In exchange, you can use their casting services. How accurate or useful are they? I searched for my hometown, Ridgefield, Washington (pop. 5,260), 25 miles north of Portland, Oregon. In the local area, the site found 25 "entertainment professionals," almost all of whom are called "casting directors." The top three results were: a guy looking for a drummer, a freelance photographer, and a 16-year-old  with "four years experience behind a camera, and editing on both final cut pro, and iMovie." Hmm. The site sure doesn't seem like a way to break into the industry.

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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