If you want to get 100,000 followers on Twitter, get all your tweets trending or get your mobile app featured on the AppStore, Jim Vidmar is your man. He’s been featured on 60 Minutes and countless other programs for his proven ability to dominate the social media platform. Since the 2016 election, however, news outlets have been covering Vidmar’s skillset for another reason — the allegations that Russian bots affected the outcome of the election.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim recently, where he explained how easy it is to artificially inflate the popularity of a Twitter account, by having thousands of bot accounts like and retweet everything shared by the account. Known as “juicing” or “boosting” a tweet, these fake likes and retweets quickly get the tweets trending, due to Twitter’s inability to accurately differentiate between bot behavior and authentic user engagement.
Jim buys bot accounts from several Russian and Ukrainian providers, all of which are selling accounts in bulk for rock bottom prices. With a little advice from Jim and 15 minutes of Google searches, we spent $50 on 1,000 Twitter accounts from a Russian provider, who conspicuously operates on the clearnet (most Bot sellers prefer the anonymity of the deep web).
The quality of the accounts wasn’t great. All of them were registered to Russian email addresses, had the familiar “egg” profile picture and most of them were suspended by Twitter within hours. Even using multiple private proxies for every ten accounts only allowed around 60% to fly below the radar. In order to automate these accounts, we’d need to hire a developer to code a script, and we’d need to pay for dozens of proxies for the duration of our nefarious operation.
Jim quickly suggested we use an alternate method of boosting our signal: fiverr gigs. We found several sellers on fiverr who were more than happy to provide thousands of likes and retweets for the low price of $5. Within hours, one of our tweets had 1,800 retweets and counting. The process was faster, easier and exponentially cheaper than buying fake accounts.
The fake retweets disappeared over the coming days, as the fiverr seller’s bots were flagged and suspended. Jim said, “You need content that is naturally going to get retweets by real people. Fake retweets only help you stand out above the noise, if the content isn’t funny or interesting, thousands of bots aren’t going to do you any good. Bots don’t make you influential, content does.” By looking at the tweets posted by Sputnik and RT versus what’s trending, the truth in Jim’s analysis is evident. Without real user engagement, tweets don’t spread very far, regardless of how many bots might be retweeting them.
The entire experience reiterated Jim’s answer when asked if he believed the Russians had used Twitter to disseminate propaganda during the 2016 election:
These guys in Russia, Ukraine, they aren’t working for the Kremlin. They have the resources. . .the phones, SIM cards, to crank out thousands of accounts. But, as you can see, the quality isn’t very good. It’s not politically-motivated, it’s financially-motivated. They know marketers will buy these accounts to do the same thing I’m doing.
His statements closely reflect those of a Russian hacker we recently interviewed, who is a member of Cozy Bear, the Russian hacking team tied to the 2016 DNC hack.
In 2016, Jim created the Twitter handle @politicsjim, as a way to share funny, entertaining commentary on the election. He used bots and fiverr gigs to gain tens of thousands of followers in days, while sharing the kind of sarcastic posts you’d expect from @Wendys. Journalists blew up his phone wanting to know how he’d managed to make the account so influential, and what his motives were. “I did it because I can, it wasn’t to push any kind of narrative, it was just for fun,” he said. He added, “Honestly, nobody is going to have their mind changed by something on Twitter or Facebook. We all have our ideals and beliefs, and a stranger on Twitter isn’t going to change that.”
I’m inclined to agree. At the end of the day, the weaponized autism that makes up the echo chambers of social media isn’t going to affect my political beliefs in the slightest.