That simple tweet started something kind of big. I had just been followed by a woman with a pretty face AVI, and I was doing my usual vetting, when I noticed that she was being a little too funny, a little too frequently. Comedy is hard, and if you have three great tweets on different subjects all within an hour, you are either brilliant or cheating. So I typed a few words from one of these tweets into the search box, and sure enough, that was not an original tweet. None of them were.
I removed all the stars I had just given. And then I tweeted the above. I didn’t block her right away, since I wanted her to maybe see that tweet.
This happens every couple of weeks. I get followed by a beautiful woman and I discover that her tweets are not original. Or, sometimes, I don’t realize that until much later when my feed starts filling with link-bait. But I’ll get back to that.
So after I tweeted that, a twitter friend @sheepandrobots DM’d me. She had a list of plagiarists that she had been keeping. She guessed I had one too and was wondering if there was some way we could get these out there. She knew I create web applications in my sleep, so I was a natural person to ask.
As it turns out, I don’t have a list. I just block them and move on. And I didn’t think a web application was the way to go. But I loved the idea of getting these lists out there. And Twitter lists seemed to be the way to do it. You could easily go through the lists to block people. The people on the list would get a notification. And if anyone looked at the lists they were a member of, they’d see this tweet thief thing mentioned.
So I set up a new account @PlagiarismBad, and asked another friend (who also edits my blog; she’s basically superwoman) to make me a cool AVI. We set up a private list containing all of our suspects. My plan is to slowly go through these, and see if they are still stealing tweets. And if they are, move them to a public list.
Why They Steal
When I started this exercise, I had one specific tweeter in mind. Let’s call her “Molly.” I discovered her tweet theft last spring, when I recognized something she wrote. It was a top tweet of someone I followed. I DM’d her and asked her about it. That led to a long conversation in which I learned that she really didn’t think there was anything wrong with what she was doing. “It’s not like it’s my thesis or anything,” she said. I tried to explain that what she was doing was plagiarism. I tried to reason with her. It made no difference. She simply doesn’t understand why stealing tweets is wrong, and she refuses to stop. I really liked the idea of putting her on a list, because a lot of people I know and like retweet her regularly. And I assume that is because they have no idea that every single thing she tweets is copied.
So I figured the first tweeters I would focus on are the 100%’rs. People who do nothing but tweet stolen tweets. Like the one I just found who inspired my tweet at the top of this post. So I started looking through the list for those. And I noticed a pattern.
Noticing patterns is something I do, and do well. It is how I discovered The Minion King. And I used the same tools I described in that post to figure out what I’m about to reveal here.
First, the vast majority of tweet thieves are not actually people. My friend Molly from last spring was an anomaly. These thieves are actually minion accounts created by some corporation. And based on what I’ve seen in the tweet metadata, I’m pretty sure there are just two organizations (possibly only one) that are responsible for almost all the tweet thief minion accounts.
One uses the pattern: pretty girl, generic name, @ handle same as the name but with an _ in the middle. (Elly Hedson @Elly_Hedson) When they advance to link-bait stage (I’ll explain this in a bit), they always link to “pict-twiter.com” sites (which, despite the name, has nothing to do with twitter.com). When you tweet, the client you used to do the tweet is recorded. Usually it’s the iPhone or Android App, or the web site, or whatever. These people have a really weird “source” in the metadata for all their tweets. It’s their twitter home page. That isn’t what the “source” is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be a link to the website of the program.
The other uses the pattern: pretty girl, generic name, @handle of first name, state abbreviation, and last name or initial. (Sarah Moore @SarahCAMoore) Sometimes the @ is first name, last name, birth year in the late ’80s. (Shelly Harkins @ShellyHarkins86) These accounts link to a broader range of web sites. The source of these tweets are all “Tweet Adder 4” which is a social media tool.
It’s possible that these are both these same company, just using a mix of strategies. Or it could be two different companies. However, most of those sites linked by the “Tweet Adder 4” group also end up ultimately at “pict-twiter.com” so I think perhaps it’s really just one minion federation.
Stages of Thief
These accounts start off by simply tweeting stolen tweets. They follow people, follow back, unfollow unfollowers, etc. Other than their content being completely stolen, they are just like any other twitter account. Interestingly, they tweet the same things as each other. So if you search for the exact text of one of the tweets on these minion TL’s, you will find a whole slew more minions.
They stay in this stage a while to build a following. Then they start tweeting links. Most of them tweet more than just links. They also continue to tweet stolen tweets. Typically one link and three stolen tweets. The links mostly go to “pict-twiter” or other sites that end up back at “pict-twiter.” That site has short collections of pictures with captions, and is designed to trick the viewer into following a link to an app or another web site. The more people they can trick this way, the more money they make.
One funny thing about all this is that even though the minion accounts are all pretending to be pretty girls, they often tweet things that a girl wouldn’t say. For example:
Since many of the most popular comedians on Twitter are men, a surprising number of the posts by these “women” refer to themselves as being male. I can’t find the origin of this tweet, by the way. But I found it in a “best of 2011” list, so it’s a classic.
Old Fashioned Plagiarists
I have been so focused on these corporate plagiarism accounts that I’m mostly not looking at the classic plagiarists yet. However, my hope is that people will report cases to the @PlagiarismBad account as they occur, and then I can add them to the list right away. Perhaps we can create a “teachable moment” for the plagiarist. Probably not. But perhaps.
I have a list of literally hundreds of suspects. People who are known to have posted stolen tweets at one time in the past. My inclination is to not put them on the public shaming list unless they are still doing it. People learn, and I don’t think having once done a stupid thing on twitter should brand you forever. I’d love to get an @ to the account saying “I’m sorry I did it; could you take me off the list?” I’d absolutely take someone off the list if they delete the tweet and apologize to the author.
Since I figure more and more people will be coming to look at the lists page of this account, I am also adding other people’s thief lists by subscribing to them. It’s easy to find these, because I just look at the lists on which my most outrageous thieves (like Molly) are already listed.
What can you do?
If you find a case of tweet theft, send a DM to @PlagiarismBad. Other than that, I’d recommend that you simply block all the people on the list. That way you won’t accidentally star or RT them, and you don’t have to worry about them following you. It’s as easy as this: