They all hailed from seemingly random cities: Fairmont, Danville, Trenton. Never a state. Never a country. Never a joke.
Oh, and none of them had actually tweeted anything.
* * *
Perhaps you have guessed what happened by now. These "people" were not people at all, but automatically generated accounts created by somebody with a bit of programming knowledge.The thousands of new followers that Olivia got were spambots emanating from the same source.
Now, if you are reading this story on the Internet, you have probably encountered spambots, or at least the spam that such bots generate.
Generally speaking, the bots tend to follow really popular accounts. And they tend not to come in swarms of thousands but one or two at a time, maybe a few dozen at most.
So the mystery remained: why was a San Diego high schooler suddenly a spambot magnet?
I began to search through Olivia's followers looking for patterns.
The first thing I noticed: Olivia wasn't part of every bot in the swarm's follow list, but she was predominant. No other account that I could find had been targeted so often, not even Lebron James.
There is an underground economy in fake-account creation, as Newt Gingrich discovered when his campaign was accused of buying Twitter followers. What people are buying, of course, is not real people, but robot-generated accounts created to make it look like people are more famous than they are.
This kind of bot normally just picks accounts from Twitter's suggested user list, the Lebron Jameses and ESPNs. But perhaps someone had tried to up its sophistication by including something some regular users. Or maybe there was some sort of bug in its "Who should I follow?" code.
Other kinds of bots decide to follow people based on what they tweet, but looking at just a few examples, it was clear that there was no content connection between Olivia and the other people these bots were following.The second thing I noticed: the spambots were following a lot of golf caddies. I couldn't explain that one immediately, but keep it in mind.