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Help me fight Twitter spam

If you're on Twitter, and if you follow the #bdnmb hashtag — or even if you just happen to see the widget that the Brandon Sun has embedded on our homepage — you've probably learned that Westman Communications Group has been named one of the top 25 employers in Manitoba.

It's an annual honour given by the editors of Canada's Top 100 Employers and is given to employers in Manitoba that offer exceptional places to work.

We covered it when the award was announced in November.

While it's great news for WCG, though, it's the kind of story that you don't expect to hear about again and again.

And yet, I would say that it's the top headline in #bdnmb the last couple of weeks.

We've got spammers to thank for that.

I don't know who tweeted out the first "congratulations" to Westman Communications Group, but they included the #bdnmb hashtag to ensure that it got seen by as many people as possible. And that's great — that sort of community discussion is exactly why a local hashtag exists.

But after that first innocent congratulations, the spambots descended.

Now, I don't know exactly what happened, but I can make an educated guess.

You see, Twitter is getting better all the time at finding and deleting fake accounts, especially ones that do nothing but annoy people with spam.

So the spammers are getting sneaky.

Instead of tweeting out spam, they'll follow you, or favourite your tweets, and then hope that you check out their profile — the spam link will be in their bio.

Or, instead of a single spam account sending out thousands of spam tweets, they'll set up a computer program to create thousands of spam accounts, and each of them will just send out a tweet or two.

Now, there's no obvious spam involved with the Westman Communications Group tweets — they're a victim here, by the way, they're not in any way the culprit.

But what I think is happening is a bit of second-order sneakery.

The spammers want to hide from Twitter by looking like real humans. So they steal real peoples' profile pictures. And they'll take a little bit of your bio, and a little bit of mine, and cobble it together into a non sequitur bio for their spam account.

They can do all of this automatically, hundreds of times in a fraction of a second.

And then, they'll copy a real person's tweet, and send it out.

Except, of course, just a copy-and-paste will get them noticed, if they're sending it out a few hundred or a few thousand times, even if the original tweet is innocent.

So they garble it.

You'll notice that the Westman Communications Group tweets are gradually getting more and more garbled.

A recent one said: "nCngrtlatns ,  uf   d .to  Wstman Communications Group on bing namd on of th top 25 Manitoba employers! A great #bdnmb company!rlet"

The computer program behind the bots is intentionally introducing minor errors to foil Twitter's detection systems. 

It's all about making these fake accounts look less like fakes, and more like human. Human enough that Twitter can't easily spot them and ban them.

The next step is probably to use them as fake followers — to pad someone's follower count, perhaps, or to camoflauge another fake account.

So the Westman Communications Group tweets are more than annoying noise, they're probably laying the groundwork for something worse, although it might not be targeted at #bdnmb.

Anway, I've been reporting each of them that I see as spam.

And you can help. One report won't get an account banned (or anyone could wreack havoc by intentionally mis-reporting legitimate tweets as spam), but multiple reports of spam can help draw the problem to Twitter's attention.

You can report spam in different ways depending on your Twitter client, but in most cases, there is a "… More" button at the bottom right of the tweet that you can click, and choose "Report Tweet". Then mark it as "Spam."

The more people that do this, hopefully the faster it will be brought to Twitter's attention, and the #bdnmb hashtag cleaned up.

Or, in the long run, I think eventually the intentional garbling will reach the #bdnmb hashtag, and it'll disappear from the timeline. But we can hasten that by reporting the tweets as spam when we see them.

It's just a coincidence that the tweet randomly grabbed by the bots included the hashtag in the first place. An annoying coincidence, to be sure, but not intentional.

It put me in mind of a recent story in The Atlantic, telling the (similar) tale of a high school girl in San Diego who ended up suddenly swarmed by thousand of porn-bots.

So it could be worse.

When it comes to spam, it might be annoying to read over and over and over again that Westman Communications Group is one of the province's top employers.

But think how much more annoying it would be if the spammy tweet contained graphic sexual imagery. Or even just foul language.

Or even was a negative story in any way.

So yes, um, 'nCngrtlatns' to Westman Communications Group. Again.

But forgive me if I'm going to be reporting your successes as spam.


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