"Anybody can use this strategy to grab information from Twitter -- either Mitt Romney's followers, or his tweets, or what he's tweeted, or activity," Ding says. "If you're just browsing the Internet and you open a browser and see all of a user's followers, that's taking time. But if you used the API, you can in one moment borrow 300 people's information."
By now, though, even this process has been open sourced. First-page results on a Google search for "program to make fake twitter accounts" return this forum on Freelancer.com, titled "Software create fake twitter users jobs." There, several development projects are posted for bidding that request a program that grabs information from Twitter users' accounts.
"Looking to design a client based application for Mac OSX that scrapes all posted tweets from each individual user who are following a specific user," one example reads. "All scraped content compiles into a txt [sic] file that can be saved to the client end computer."
The intent for this project is not listed anywhere in the description. This information could conceivably be used for legitimate purposes, such as collecting and researching a particular user's tweets. It could also be used to populate the empty fields of thousands of fake accounts, making them look more legitimate.
Indeed, as Twitter turns on the heat on abusers, the appearance of legitimacy is becoming an essential consideration for those who persist.
Twitter's reputation may be on the line
On the same day that Barracuda Labs released its report, Ding says Twitter suspended around 39,000 fake accounts. However, given that Twitter had suspended about 12,000 accounts a day earlier, Ding says he doesn't believe the report had anything to do with Twitter's crackdown. Twitter declined to comment.
What may have prompted the sting on Twitter abusers and spam accounts was a new Twitter initiative concerning the presidential election. On Aug. 1, just days before announcing its new anti-spam tools and carrying out its sting on fake accounts, Twitter released the Political Index tool. On this entirely new site, Twitter will stream data in real-time based on all tweets that mention either Romney or Barack Obama. The index shows how many tweets mention the candidate in a positive or negative light, and gauges public opinion accordingly.
Given how easy it is to control networks of robot accounts, Ding says these figures could be altered by anyone with a vested interest in controlling the data.