Romney's spike in followers makes us ask: What is a person?

Twitter CEO Evan Williams is seen silhouetted against a screen as he shows off the Twitter website on Sept. 14, 2010. A large number “people” on Twitter are just bits of code intent on spamming.

Mitt Romney is being followed by robots.

Seriously. On Twitter. The presumptive GOP nominee recently saw a dramatic spike in his follower count: 116,000 in just one day. Most of those followers, however, are fakes. Artificially generated accounts, says Jason Ding of Barracuda Security. He's been investigating this phenomena using several criteria.

Jason Ding: For example, are they following a lot of people? And, they don't even tweet.

Moe: They don't tweet.

Ding: Yeah. 25 percent of them don't have a single tweet.

You can go on eBay and buy fake Twitter followers. Cheap. The Romney campaign denies doing this.

Ding says it could've been a Romney supporter helping the guy out. Or an Obama supporter trying to make Romney look bad. Says Ding: "They don't require authentication to purchase followers, so that means that anyone can buy Romney followers. For example, I can spend maybe 100 bucks and buy maybe 100,000 followers for Romney."

A hundred thousand. So Twitter is crawling with fake people. Why? Money. Tim Hwang is with the research company Pacific Social and says, "It works along the same economics as email, which is that people are being paid to push links or other types of messages through the bots that they run."

The fakes, says Hwang, are mostly harmless. "They're called spambots because they're just like email spam. Pretty much when you get an email spam, it doesn't really impact your behavior, you kind of throw it out."

But bot technology is improving. Says Hwang, "What's interesting about that is they become increasingly difficult to tell who's real or who's not on these sorts of platforms, and you might be able to push a message out or persuade people of certain things or even give the sense that something is happening when it's not. I think that starts to take on bigger ramifications when you start to notice that all sorts of mainstream outlets are using stuff like Twitter and Facebook to report on what's happening on the ground. The worry with these bots is if they can influence that, they can influence public opinion and even our sense of what's going on in the real world."

Hwang has been creating new bots for research purposes that are better at acting like people. "There's one funny story where we're trying to figure out how a bot should respond of being accused of being a bot, which happens from time to time. And so we figured out this solution where we have a bot that accuses humans of being bots, records their responses and then gives them to the bots to use. What's funny with that is you have these transcripts of people apologizing to the bot for accusing it of being a bot, and so I think we're trying to get to the point where it may be difficult to detect and where people may really think these are real people."

And if researchers can make better fake bots today, spammers will be doing the same before long.

**

Facebook is now a casino. Kinda.

The omnipresent social entity has rolled out a new app for members in the U.K.: Bingo & Slots Friendzy. Get it: friend frenzy? It's real live gambling with real live money. That's legal in England.

Thing about gambling is you need entertainment. Music. That's what they have in the casinos, right? Let's try to adapt some gambling music for Facebook.

Elvis Presley: And I'm just a devil with love to spare so VIVA

Moe: Facebook!

No, that doesn't sound right. We have to find something though. Let's try a city on the East Coast for gambling.

Bruce Springsteen: Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty and meet me tonight

Moe: on Facebook!

Ooh, if anything that's worse. Let's try translating the idea of the Facebook user who gambles.

Kenny Rogers and Moe: You got to know when to Friend them / Know when to Unfriend them / Know when to Post a Status Update!

No, that's a disaster. Yikes.

Maybe Facebook's foray into gambling will pay off. But I don't think we're ready to sing along yet.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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