Handling Twitter Spam

Back in the olden days of ProfHacker—August 21st, 2009, to be exact—I wrote about Using Twitter Clients to Manage Your Information Stream. I discussed various approaches to using Twitter/reading the information stream and included a few examples of using Twitter clients.

I spend a lot of time on Twitter. I currently follow 404 accounts (no, that’s not an error), and because my Twitter client of choice (Brizzly) allows me to scroll back through my twitter stream without hitting a limit, I can honestly say my eyes pass over every tweet in that stream.


Reporting a spammer through the Twitter interface (I sure do pick on @jbj a lot).

I never see a spammer in my Twitter timeline, yet I often hear people complain about how “there’s so much spam on Twitter” or “I opened my client and all I see is spam spam spam” and so on. Are there spammers on Twitter? Oh heck yes. But I never see them in my information stream, and neither should you. If you do, it should be for approximately a second—long enough to click a button and rid them from your stream and hopefully every other stream within a reasonable timeframe.

One of Twitter’s best features—its API—leads to this problem of spam appearing within the service. If I were so inclined, it would take me approximately five minutes to write a script and create a thousand spam accounts (although they would likely notice and shut down access to the API from my IP address). The image used in this post is from a screenshot of one of the most popular spammer avatars. For better or worse, I’m pretty good at spotting spammers just in the e-mail notice I get when a new follower pops up. I block & report them immediately. By my count, approximately 98% of the people I have blocked & reported have been removed from Twitter within the week. The system works in that regard. But do spammers do a number on the trending topics? A few months ago I would have said that yes, that’s a problem. But now, Twitter has improved their filtering mechanisms and also put real people in place whose only job is to deal with spam, spamming techniques, and the aftermath of spammers.

When might you actually see a spammer? When they follow you. But the act of the spammer following you doesn’t put them in your timeline. You would have to follow the spammer in order to see their spam, unless we are specifically talking about mentions/@replies in which the spammer has targeted your username. In that case, you still won’t see the spammer in your timeline, but you will see the spam message when you switch to the mentions/@reply list in your client of choice. If you are using a client that does not offer you the ability to see only your mentions/@replies, then you might want to get a new client, because we all know what happens when you cross the streams.

You might also see spam via direct message if a rogue process has taken over the account of one of your verified friends (someone you follow). Lesson: don’t authorize your account with third-party applications unless you know you can trust them. Direct messages themselves are already engineered to prevent spam (unless the accounts are taken over, as in the scenario above). If I follow you but you don’t follow me, you can still DM me, but I can’t DM you. If I follow you and you follow me, we can DM each other. If two accounts have no connection at all, DMs can’t be sent. Lesson: only follow people you want to follow, and not spammers.

Reporting spam used to be a bit of a chore, but a few weeks ago Twitter integrated a report spam feature into their web interface—you can see that in near-action in the image above. Those of you using a third-party Twitter client may or may not have a similar one-click spam report/block feature yet, although report_spam is an API method. If you want it in your client, send a message to the developers and make them aware that you want to help keep spam off the Twitter platform and you could do that a lot easier if it were part of your client of choice. I know it’s coming for Brizzly, and it should be rolling out in other clients as it’s an important feature. So remember: if you see a spammer in your timeline, first block them and report them, then figure out how they showed up in the first place. Having trouble figuring out if you’re following a spammer or not? Try Twitblock—it’s safe.

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