beware of the twitter sleepers from outer space

Back in June of this year, the big news was about the Russian spy ring composed of several couples that had become “sleepers” – spies that have come into the country and gone on to lead apparently normal lives. The idea is that at some point, their boss would tell them to wake up and to do their spy stuff.

If it sounds like the stuff of fiction, it’s no wonder, as the concept has been used by novelists and movie directors for years.  My favorite was the Manchurian Candidate (the 1962 version NOT the 2004 version) – which was about an unwitting sleeper agent, Raymond Shaw, who had been brainwashed during his sojourn at a POW camp in Manchuria.  Apparently, when he sees a Queen of Diamonds playing card, he becomes activated and becomes the puppet of his handlers.

The case back in June proved the point that sleepers could be real. Now I’m wondering if governments could stoop to these tricks, why not malicious malevolent spammers?  After all, they’ve been filling our email boxes with offers from Nigerian princes and offers of unbounded male virility, wasting billions of dollars worth of American productivity for years.

Lately, I’ve been noticing I’ve been receiving a fair amount of follows from individuals with peculiar profiles.  For one, they often seem like perfectly normal people (JUST like the Russian spies, I might add).  But then I notice that they have a lot of followers despite the fact that they haven’t tweeted all that much at all. Their followers-to-tweets ratio might look something like this:

It’s a well-known fact that a LOT of people either manually or with the help of software play a “collect the follower” game on Twitter.  When you see an insurance agent with 50,000 followers, you can bet it’s not because he has a huge fan base.

And if it’s possible for an insurance agent to have tens of thousands of followers then it’s perfectly feasible for a person that isn’t a person at all, but a made-up persona to have that many. The thing is, I’m seeing SO many of these fictitious tweeters, and I’m beginning to wonder what’s up.  Is there some dark Overlord of Spam out there building up an army of sleeper twitter agents?  Just imagine millions of people on Twitter following these sleeper agents, only to wake up one day to a barrage of twitter spam. The pain will have been inflicted, and the advertising emblazoned upon the brains of the poor unsuspecting real people, and Nigerian princes will be flowing over the borders of the United States.

How do we keep from becoming the victim of this new menace?

  1. Be Human. In other words, don’t just auto-follow whoever follows you, either manually, or with software.  Software CAN be a nice way of un-following people who just aren’t engaging with you – but even then, it does make sense still to follow people that just aren’t going to follow you back.  For instance, @dragon_kathryn follows @MattCutts, the Google search czar – and even though it’s terribly unlikely that he’ll EVER follow her back, it probably pays to continue to receive his tweets from afar.
  2. Check out the most recent tweets of a follower.  If they seem like there is no interaction, or if the tweets seem formulaic, it might be best to steer clear.

In the case of the person who had the 6 tweets in the illustration above, their tweets looked like this:

  • That would be unwholesome, bewildering, and unprofitable
  • At the mercy of small prejudices, Florence
  • Obstacles and disasters, Martin
  • A passage of extraordinary daring
  • Exasperating to the last degree, Victor
  • If it wasn’t for muscle spasms, I wouldn’t get any exercise at all.

If you see a pattern of real nonsense tweets like this, abstain.  And when the day of the great Twitter Spamageddon arrives, remember, you heard it here first.

And if YOU have seen any suspicious behavior, please let us know, here at the Committee of Un-Twitterific Behavior.

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