SINGAPORE - In a game where bigger is better, some Twitter users are buying fake fans to make themselves appear more popular than they are.
At stake are advertising dollars, as the more followers a Twitter user has, the more these dollars are likely to follow him.
According to research published by Barracuda Networks, there are some 52 eBay sellers pedalling fake accounts worldwide and it costs an average of just US$11 (S$14) to purchase a thousand "followers".
But, then, this scam can be busted.
Barracuda analysed the Twitter data of six popular Singapore users - each of whom had between 10,000 and 300,000 followers - and concluded that at least one of them had a large proportion of bogus followers.
It categorised 19 per cent of this user's fans as "fake", 52 per cent as "uncertain" and 29 per cent as "good".
Fake Twitter users will generally have a profile with missing background and profile images, and follow many other users. The profile will also have few or no tweets, or tweets with spam content. (See sidebar)
Some 65 per cent of this suspect Twitter user's fans were also found to be following between 1,500 and 2,000 users, which Barracuda said is a good indicator of the fans being fake computer-generated accounts. Most hardly tweeted themselves.
The stakes are high and it is an extremely competitive, multi-million-dollar industry, experts said.
The practice of buying fake followers on Twitter has been going on for some time, with some international pop stars and politicians being implicated.
But advertisers are catching on.
Companies do check up on online personalities to figure out if their followers are who they say they are, MyPaper understands from players in the advertising industry.
However, the extent of checks may vary from firm to firm.
Blogger Hong Qiu Ting, 26, popularly known as Qiu Qiu, said that such sharp practices make it hard for honest, budding bloggers who are building up their fan base to establish themselves.
This is because they face unfair competition from peers who fake the numbers and, in turn, get the advertising dollars.
She notes that besides Twitter, one can also buy video views on YouTube, as well as "likes" and "fans" on Instagram.
Twitter said purchasing followers is one of the factors it takes into account when determining if a user's conduct constitutes "spamming".
A Twitter spokesman told MyPaper that it "strives to protect its users from abuse and spam" and it will look into accounts involved in such activities.
Accounts which flout the usage rules may be suspended or terminated.