Just how many fake Twitter accounts are there? And why does it matter?

Twitter and experts disagree on how many fake Twitter accounts there are:

In securities filings, Twitter says it believes fake accounts represent fewer than 5% of its 230 million active users. Independent researchers believe the number is higher.

Italian security researchers Andrea Stroppa and Carlo De Micheli say they found 20 million fake accounts for sale on Twitter this summer. That would amount to nearly 9% of Twitter’s monthly active users. The Italian researchers also found software for sale that allows spammers to create unlimited fake accounts. The researchers decoded robot-programming software to reveal how easy it is for spammers to control the convincing fakes…

Jason Ding, a researcher at Barracuda Labs who has studied fake Twitter followers for more than a year, also thinks Twitter underestimates the prevalence of fake accounts on the network. Mr. Ding says users don’t understand how active and realistic the fakes can appear.

Read on for more details how the battle between the black market and Twitter’s use of algorithms to discover fake accounts is going. Even if the average user can’t quite figure out who is a real or fake user, the consequences are real:

The fake accounts remain a cloud over Twitter Inc. in the wake of its successful initial public offering. “Twitter is where many people get news,” says Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. “If what is trending on Twitter is being faked by robots, people need to know that. This will and should undermine trust.”

According to this article and others, it appears that fake accounts are most commonly used for promotional purposes, whether for Washington politicians or entertainment stars. How harmful are these fake accounts which might be used to boost the number of followers or retweet material?

On the other hand, Turkle suggests these fake accounts could easily mask what is really happening on Twitter. Perhaps they are pushing certain Twitter trends, which then influences other users. Or, perhaps these fake Twitter accounts could push false news reports, which could have some different consequences depending on the situation. It could be worse if a large number of users find out they were interacting with or trying to engage with fake accounts.

While I agree with Turkle that this does present an important trust issue, I wonder if it would take some high profile case before this becomes a real issue. Imagine someone is able to use a set of fake accounts to pull off a terrorist act or throw off the government.

Testing rules of reciprocity two ways: sociologist sends out Christmas cards to strangers, making requests of strangers in Facebook

In 1974, a sociologist tested the social norms of reciprocity by sending out Christmas cards to 600 strangers. He received a sizable response:

And so he went out and collected directories for some nearby towns and picked out around 600 names. “I started out at a random number and then skipped so many and got to the next one,” he says.

To these 600 strangers, Kunz sent his Christmas greetings: handwritten notes or a card with a photo of him and his family. And then Kunz waited to see what would happen.

“It was just, you know, a shot in the dark,” he says. “I didn’t know what would happen.”

But about five days later, responses started filtering back — slowly at first and then more, until eventually they were coming 12, 15 at a time. Eventually Kunz got more than 200 replies. “I was really surprised by how many responses there were,” he says. “And I was surprised by the number of letters that were written, some of them three, four pages long.”…

“We got cards for maybe 15 years,” he says.

While the article goes on to discuss why strangers might reciprocate in this way, I wonder how much this applies to the social realm of Facebook. If someone did something similar on Facebook today, such as making friend requests of many people they don’t know or sending messages to strangers, would people respond in the same way? From personal experience, research on the topic, and an experiment one of my students did this semester by sending messages to random Facebook users and receiving no response, reciprocation does not occur to the same degree in Facebook. Here are a few reasons why this might be the case:

1. A growing distrust of strangers. On Facebook, this sort of behavior tends to be described as “creepy.” Even as media sources suggest users, particularly kids and teenagers, can meet all sorts of random people online, most users tend to stick with people they already know or who are in geographic proximity (like classmates at the same school).

2. People are less in the habit of having to reciprocate because more encounters on Facebook are controlled, meaning they happen when a user wants them to happen. In other words, chance encounters between people who don’t know each other are more limited. Overall, Facebook and text messaging and other means make it more possible to have social interactions on someone’s own terms.

To some degree, reciprocity is part of how trust is built between social actors. It is part of basic exchanges: if you ask someone “how are you doing?” you expect a polite response. If you provide a favor for someone at work, we tend to expect a favor in return down the road. However, these sorts of exchanges may look very different on Facebook (for example, common encouraging responses to new profile pictures or posts about tough circumstances) and could signal larger shifts in how people interact.

View from foreign observers: American voting system heavily reliant on trust

Foreign observers watching the voting process in the United States suggested it is a system that involves a lot of trust:

“It’s an incredible system,” said Nuri K. Elabbar, who traveled to the United States along with election officials from more than 60 countries to observe today’s presidential elections as part of a program run by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). Your humble Cable guy visited polling places with some of the international officials this morning. Most of them agreed that in their countries, such an open voting system simply would not work.

“It’s very difficult to transfer this system as it is to any other country. This system is built according to trust and this trust needs a lot of procedures and a lot of education for other countries to adopt it,” Elabbar said.

The most often noted difference between American elections among the visitors was that in most U.S. states, voters need no identification. Voters can also vote by mail, sometimes online, and there’s often no way to know if one person has voted several times under different names, unlike in some Arab countries, where voters ink their fingers when casting their ballots.

The international visitors also noted that there’s no police at U.S. polling stations. In foreign countries, police at polling places are viewed as signs of security; in the United States they are sometimes seen as intimidating.

It can be helpful to get outside perspectives on what takes place in the United States. Two thoughts based on these observations:

1. How long will this trust last? There was a lot of chatter online yesterday about voting irregularities. Do the two parties and Americans in general trust each other to handle voting? This reminds me of the oft-quoted de Toqueville who wrote in Democracy in America that Americans were more prone to join civic and political groups. The United States was born in the Enlightenment era where old ways of governing, church and tradition (meaning: monarchies), were overthrown and citizens turned to each other and a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” (Lincoln in the Gettsyburg Address). Of course, we can contrast this with Robert Putnam’s work in Bowling Alone which suggested Americans have retreated from the civic and social realm in recent decades. Plus, confidence in American institutions has declined in recent decades.

2. Trying to implement an American-style voting and government system in countries that don’t have the same history and culture is a difficult and lengthy task. In other words, this sort of system and trust doesn’t just develop overnight or in a few years. Voting systems are culturally informed. This should help shape our foreign policy.

Sociologist: economic crisis leads to mistrust of the system

As the economic crisis drags on and Americans have lost a lot of wealth, one sociologist suggests the economic uncertainty leads to mistrust of the system:

“I don’t want to romanticize the past — it wasn’t perfect — but there was a sense of security, and that is gone,” said Thorne, a sociologist at Ohio University and an expert on bankruptcy and consumerism.

“We felt that if we played by the rules, that we would do all right. Now there is a feeling that you are never on solid ground, even if you do the right thing.”

Thus the biggest loss may go beyond the decline in the American family’s assets, she said: trust.

“Despite our most honest efforts, through all of our lifetimes, we worked our jobs, we played by the rules, and we still lost. That fosters fear and mistrust in the system.”

While the economic effects of a recession or slow recovery are well-known, I’ve been interested in commentators who have argued that there is much longer-lasting social and emotional impact. While Thorne is quick to not “romanticize the past,” there is some nostalgia here: American prosperity after the end of World War II was perhaps unprecedented in history. What happens if we never see this again, in the United States or elsewhere in the world? If this sort of prosperity and certainty doesn’t come back for a long time, how would people find a new level of trust in the American system?

Sociologist Richard Sennett: Wall Street offices lack cooperation

After talking with a number of workers involved in the Wall Street troubles of 2008, sociologist Richard Sennett argues that Wall Street offices lack cooperation:

The financial industry is a high-stress business that requires people to work extremely long hours, sacrificing time for children, spouses and social pleasures. But after 2008, many of my subjects were no longer willing to make those sacrifices. Looking back, they realized how little respect they had for the executives who’d worked above them, how superficial was the trust they had for fellow workers and, most of all, how weak cooperation proved in the wake of financial disaster.

The fragility of this social triangle is disturbing. When informal channels of communication wither, people keep to themselves ideas about how the organization is really doing, or guard their own territory. Weak social ties erode loyalty, which businesses need in good times as well as bad. Many of the employees I’ve been talking with have come to feel embittered by the thin, superficial quality of social ties in places where they spend most of their waking hours…

Even for those workers who have recovered quickly, the crash isn’t something they are likely to forget. The front office may want to get back as quickly as possible to the old regime, to business as usual, but lower down the institutional ladder, people seem to feel that during the long boom something was missing in their lives: the connections and bonds forged at work.

This is an example of how sociology can help inform economics and/or social policy. In order for offices or any social group to work well, there has to be trust, solidarity, and cooperation. These traits cannot simply be dictated or ordered. Rather, relationships and social ties need to be started, developed, and maintained over time. These relationships may seem silly or unnecessary to some but it will be difficult to accomplish great things without them.

I expect an analysis like this is just the beginning of a flood of academic work and commentary about the recent economy crisis. And I would guess that a lot of research will show that people were not acting “rationally” but rather were working off of different emotions that led to “irrational exuberance.” Cultural and social factors played a role but it will up to scholars to determine how much.

The (terrible?) world of “professional” Amazon reviewers

A recent study of some of Amazon.com’s top 1000 reviewers has PC Magazine writer John Dvorak questions the validity of their reviews:

In the first academic study of its kind, Trevor Pinch, Cornell University professor of sociology and of science and technology studies, independently surveyed 166 of Amazon’s top 1,000 reviewers, examining everything from demographics to motives. What he discovered was 85 percent of those surveyed had been approached with free merchandise from authors, agents or publishers.

Pinch, who also found the median age range of the reviewers he surveyed was 51 to 60, a surprise said Pinch, because the image of the internet is more of a young person’s thing. Amazon is encouraging reviewers to receive free products through Amazon Vine, an invitation-only program in which the top 1,000 reviewers are offered a catalog of free products to review…

This is the fraud aspect of the process that cannot be tolerated. And now to find out they are in a much older demographic makes me think they are just product hoarders who will say what they need to say to get more products. This conclusion is hinted at by the professor.

I do not like man on the street reviews. I never have, and I’ve always thought they could be easily corrupted by smart public relations folks who have already dove into what they call social media. This includes phony personas on Twitter and Facebook that are used to sway public opinion, shipping free goodies to “influential” bloggers, and things like this Amazon scandal.

Dvorak is not really arguing that reviews are not valuable but rather that because Amazon does not fully disclose how these reviewers operate, customers could be duped. The problem here is trust: Dvorak and others might assume that reviewers are doing this out of the goodness of their hearts but instead they are “professionals.” Instead, these reviewers are being “paid.” This is a classic gatekeepers problem: how do you know that a reviewer is trustworthy and giving unvarnished opinions? There are plenty of critics these days for various media outlets and websites. I suspect many average citizens have to read through multiple reviews from a single critic to see if their thoughts line up with their own or to see if they are consistent.

Of course, Amazon relies on a crowd sourcing approach, just like aggregator websites such as Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic. Do these top reviewers really sway people’s opinions about products since there are often many others who provide reviews of the same products?

Why not ask Amazon whether critical reviewers have been kicked out of these programs? Dvorak is suggesting that these reviewers would speak positively about products just in order to receive more – couldn’t Amazon fight back against this?

My first thoughts when I saw this study a while back was that how confident could Pinch be about his findings based on 166 reviewers. Why not go for a larger sample out of the 1000 Top Reviewers?

(Side note: at the end, Dvorak applauds Pinch for tackling this topic:

By the way (and off topic), you should read my writings over the past 30 years, because I have been hounding sociologists around the world to begin to study these sorts of computer and Internet activities. Give Professor Pinch an award, will you! Maybe that will encourage more studies.

Maybe so.)

Another possible consequence of the foreclosure crises: a lack of trust of financial institutions

In recent decades, a number of sociologists have written about a necessary feature of human interaction: trust between the individuals or groups involved. Two sociologists discuss this in the Huffington Post:

While also feeling shame and embarrassment, even personal failure, for having allowed themselves to be taken in, these families are also aware of the exploitation they have experienced at the hands of their “trusted” financial advisors. That mistrust threatens the recovery some believe has begun in recent months.

As the British sociologist Anthony Giddens has noted, in complex societies where each individual cannot become expert in all the institutional contexts in which they must operate, trust is essential for people to negotiate the various realms, including financial institutions, in which they operate. People must feel secure in the trust networks they establish in order to survive and prosper, and for society itself to advance.

In a series of in-depth interviews nationwide with 22 adults who are at risk of foreclosure (they were either behind in their mortgage payments at some point in the past two years or, in two instances, had already lost their homes due to foreclosure) all respondents expressed both anger and personal responsibility. The interviews lasted between 30 and 90 minutes. In no question with any respondent was the word “trust” used. But in every case but one, the respondents explicitly referred to the mistrust they now have for anyone associated with the mortgage lending industry in particular or financial services generally.

From this short excerpt, it is hard to get an idea of how representative these 22 respondents are and how we can know whether their opinions reflect those of Americans at large. But if this is generalizable information, it suggests it could take a long for customers to approach the mortgage industry in the same way. At the same time, many Americans don’t really have many other options when shopping for a home: a mortgage is a necessity. So how could the mortgage industry once again gain the trust of consumers – special programs, special efforts, more government regulation?

According to the postscript at the end of the article, a longer argument from these two sociologists will be published soon in Social Science Quarterly.