Suspended Accounts in Retrospect: An Analysis of Twitter Spam

Chris Grier
Vern Paxson
Dawn Song
Proceedings of the Internet Measurement Conference(2011)


In this study, we examine the abuse of online social networks at the hands of spammers through the lens of the tools, techniques, and support infrastructure they rely upon. To perform our analysis, we identify over 1.1 million accounts suspended by Twitter for disruptive activities over the course of seven months. In the process, we collect a dataset of 1.8 billion tweets, 80 million of which belong to spam accounts. We use our dataset to characterize the behavior and lifetime of spam accounts, the campaigns they execute, and the wide-spread abuse of legitimate web services such as URL shorteners and free web hosting. We also identify an emerging marketplace of illegitimate programs operated by spammers that include Twitter account sellers, ad-based URL shorteners, and spam affiliate programs that help enable underground market diversification. Our results show that 77% of spam accounts identified by Twitter are suspended within on day of their first tweet. Because of these pressures, less than 9% of accounts form social relationships with regular Twitter users. Instead, 17% of accounts rely on hijacking trends, while 52% of accounts use unsolicited mentions to reach an audience. In spite of daily account attrition, we show how five spam campaigns controlling 145 thousand accounts combined are able to persist for months at a time, with each campaign enacting a unique spamming strategy. Surprisingly, three of these campaigns send spam directing visitors to reputable store fronts, blurring the line regarding what constitutes spam on social networks.

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