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.