Nick Bilton, The New York Times
I am the ruler of worlds. Let me rephrase that: I am the ruler of one very small world of social media bots.
My Twitter bots resemble real people, with photos for avatars and bios. Meet Fabiola Shaffer: She is pretty, has long brown hair, is a writer and researcher in New York and loves chocolate. Karri B. Segal is a sophisticated woman in her mid-50s, works in advertising in New York and likes Etsy. Rick Engbarg is a tuxedo-wearing rocket scientist who freelances at SpaceX and lives in San Francisco.
Never mind that they don’t exist, figments of a few lines of computer code. I can command them to retweet certain topics (like chocolate or Ebola), favorite a tweet or follow anyone who follows them. Compared with most bot collections, which number in the tens of thousands and are often called bot farms, my enclave of 20 bots is more like a bot petting zoo.
We’ve known about bots for some time (I wrote about them earlier this year, and how anyone can buy a few thousand “friends” for $5). But making these fake accounts used to be difficult, requiring lots of programming deft. Now, even I can make my own — and trust me, my programming skills are minimal.
As a result, a giant pyramid scheme has emerged on social media, where fake friends now command real money.
Here’s how the pyramid works: With minimal effort, I downloaded a piece of software called Twitter Supremacy. For $50 for a six-month license, the software (which violates Twitter’s terms of service agreement) lets me fabricate an unlimited number of friends.
Furthermore, I can program these fake accounts to tweet, retweet and follow others automatically, as if they were living, breathing users. (There are dozens of similar services that do this for Instagram, Vine, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube and Facebook.)
With an army of fake friends at my disposal, I can now charge people who want to increase their number of followers or promote certain tweets. One bot creator I talked to (who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because his work violates user agreements with social media sites) said that he manages hundreds of thousands of Instagram bots and makes a good living by pushing posts to the app’s popular page. He can also manufacture all kinds of engagement, including following accounts and commenting on photos.
Who pays for these services? The bot creator said that his clients include well-known celebrities and brands, along with everyday people who want a social media ego boost. (The bot maker wouldn’t let me share whom he works with, but the list includes A-list celebrities and a fast-food chain.)