By Raquel Miguel and Antoine Grégoire
At the end of May, we published a report on how an anonymous Spanish alternative blog called La Verdadera Izquierda, which spreads disinformation and polarizing content, had been using the Amazon Associates program to fund its activities. You can find the full report here.
During this investigation, we identified three social media accounts that seemed clearly connected to the La Verdadera Izquierda “network” but had been renamed and suddenly changed behaviour. We were able to prove that these Twitter accounts and Facebook Pages used disinformation and divisive narrative to attract followers before changing names and behaviour, suggesting that they probably had been transferred to a new owner.
Following our report, an investigation from El Diario found that these accounts had in fact been resold for money on a black market of social media accounts, infringing upon online platforms’ terms of service. These black markets are a good place to generate money out of accounts that were primarily grown through spreading clickbait — and sometimes — disinformation and polarizing content.
The Twitter account @YoEstoyConVox was formerly dedicated to promoting the Vox political party and sharing La Verdadera Izquierda blog posts and Amazon links connected to the individual known as “Sergarlo”. In the course of our investigation, the account suddenly changed its name to Jose_CasadoVOX. Vox local politician, Jose Casado, confirmed to El Diario that @YoEstoyconVox Twitter account had been sold to him.
We also found another Twitter account belonging to a Spanish DJ, who has no apparent links to La Verdadera Izquierda, but had been behaving in the past exactly like the other accounts operated by Sergarlo:
- Sharing of polarizing content and links to the La Verdadera Izquierda blog.
- Regular posting of Amazon links connected to Sergarlo.
Using the Account Analysis tool, we were able to determine that the Twitter account started to share completely different content at the end of 2019.
We suspected that the account was renamed after it was sold to the Spanish DJ. We do not know if the Spanish DJ had knowledge of the nature of his followers or the account’s previous tweets. The account has now since disappeared.
The third case we identified was linked to the Twitter account and the Facebook page named @Patria_Espana and Orgullo Patrio, which suddenly became connected to a Spanish company working in the renewable energy sector.
On Twitter, all previous tweets from @Patria_Espana were erased before the transfer of this account to a new owner. But Sergarlo had automated the tweeting of Amazon links on several of his accounts, including this one. In light of this, the renamed Twitter account (now owned by a small Spanish company) continued to tweet the exact same Amazon URLs linked to Sergarlo’s accounts at the beginning, pointing to the same IDs.
Thanks to the Transparency Information from Facebook, we were able to confirm that the Spanish company’s new Facebook Page was previously named “Orgullo patrio” and had shared Amazon links and content similar to the rest of the La Verdadera Izquierda network.
Contacted by the Spanish media El Diario, the company recognized that it bought both the Twitter account and the Facebook Page online, realising afterwards that they were previously used to spread extremist content and disinformation.
After the initial Patria_Espana account was sold by Sergarlo, a new Patria_Espana account appeared to quickly rebuild a new audience, following its claim that its previous account was “a victim of Twitter censorship”.
Thanks to the El Diario article, we have now full confirmation that these accounts were sold (two of them at least) on a black market where the sale of social media accounts — sometimes used before to spread disinformation and hateful content — is flourishing.
Going deeper, the El Diario article titled “Social network accounts sold for political propaganda, the reason here” investigates how Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, previously created and actively used to gain followers, are sold in some internet forums, such as Milanuncios or ForoBeta, as well as eBay for video game accounts. This black market openly goes against the social media platforms’ terms of service, which prohibit the purchase and sale of accounts. The buyers do not usually know the origin, background, history, and methods used to build an audience for these social media accounts. Most of the time, it’s possible to find traces connected to the account’s original owner.
When the accounts gain a significant amount of followers, they are then sold to individuals who prefer not to start from scratch on social media. The price depends on the origin of the account: Instagram accounts are usually cheaper than Facebook and Twitter ones. As a general rule, Instagram accounts are the lowest priced, and with about €100 you can buy one with tens of thousands of followers. Facebook pages and Twitter accounts tend to be more expensive. For example, for €200, the Vox politician Jose Casado bought a Twitter account already populated with 3,000 followers. In the forum ForoBeta, one of the last Facebook pages sold was “Don’t tell me like that, ok”, with a “Latino audience” made up of about 60,000 followers and “without infringements,” according to the seller. The starting price was $580.
In a nutshell:
- This case study shows how disinformation can be used to grow audiences, leading to malicious actors profiting from the sale of accounts populated with followers on the black market.
- Stricter policies and transparency on account name changes could limit this business from flourishing. To date, such transparency features are only available on a limited number of social media platforms.