Steal this Tweet

The title of this post is an homage to a book published by Abbie Hoffman in 1971. That book is about fighting the power, and it appears that that is at least part of what this Plagiarism is Bad exercise is all about. If you are just tuning in, you should start with Part 1, where I explain what I’m up to. If you’re too lazy to click through that (and I know that you are), we created an account at @PlagiarismBad to keep a list of people who steal tweets.

When I say “we,” I mean me and my collaborators, Frank (@WheelTod) and Andrea (@sheepandrobots). The three of us have access to the account and we are very deliberately going through the massive lists we already have. And the reports are flooding in. We confirm that we have an actual thief and then put them on one or more of the lists.

In one case, I sent a DM to a guy I follow who had been reported, since he really didn’t seem like the tweet-stealing type. In his case, he had stolen his own tweet from an old account. I’m glad I checked!

A funny thing happened as I started going through the reports: I quickly discovered that most tweet thieves aren’t people. They are companies and they are doing it with a profit motive. These companies are ultimately trying to drive clicks to websites full of advertisements. The more people that follow the links, the more money they make. To get you to see their links, they need you to follow their accounts. To do that, they need content. So they steal it.

They start by just tweeting stolen content so they can build a follower base. After a while, they start throwing the links into the mix. An overwhelming portion of these links end up on the site pict-twiter.com. According to the public DNS database, that’s a site run by a fellow named Steven Melton. I found him on Twitter at @StevenMelton14. If following tweet thieving, link baiting, “Professional Poker Player” scumbags is your fetish, he’s your guy.

According to the database and Zillow, Steve lives in Moore, Oklahoma, in a lovely 3 bedroom, 2 bath house worth just over $100K. (The value of his house took a big tumble last year. Bummer, Steve.) I’ll let you search the whois database yourself if you want his address (Google: whois pict-twiter.com). You know, in case you want to send him flowers to thank him for all the lovely links and plagiarism in your feed.

There’s a funny thing about the way that Steve is doing this. He’s mostly using a program called Tweet Adder 4 to post the stolen tweets. I looked into Skootle—the company that makes that tool—and their website certainly looks like a pretty legitimate social media promotion company. They make tools that big companies can use to post content to social media. But as I dug a little further, I found out they have also been a favorite tool for spammers—so much so that Twitter sued them.

The crux of Twitter’s suit was that there was too much automation in the Tweet Adder software. Twitter’s terms of service pretty much ban any kind of automation in managing your followers, so this software was violating those. After putting up a fight for a while, Skootle eventually settled the lawsuit, and took all the automation out of their tools. Their users apparently then started a virtual riot, because they loved all that automation. However, it was never okay with Twitter to do that stuff, so that’s gone now.

Steve doesn’t seem to mind. He’s still using the software to dump his plagiarism and link bait into your feed. It’s just that he needs to click a lot more to do it now than he used to.

I figured that the nice folks at Skootle might be a bit upset if they found out someone was using their tool to violate Twitter’s terms of service. That’s what got them into hot water in the first place. I opened a support ticket with them and told them about what I’d found. This was their reply:

Translation: Fuck you.

Translation: Fuck you.

For those of you not familiar with the fine art of passing the buck, what they are saying is that their software doesn’t violate any of the rules. If their users violate the rules, that’s not their problem. Obviously that’s nonsense, or they wouldn’t have had to settle with Twitter in the first place.

It’s worth noting at this point that it’s not really clear whether plagiarism is a violation of Twitter’s rules. Copyright infringement is banned. But whether a tweet constitutes copyrightable material is a complex legal question. It depends what the tweet is. A photo or a poem is more likely to qualify, a joke less likely, and a simple statement of fact not at all. Here is an excellent discussion of the topic.

So at this point, I can’t stop the practice. It’s not clear that plagiarism is something Twitter cares about in the slightest. And the company that makes the software that this scumbag is using isn’t going to shut him down. (And if they did, he’d just switch to different software anyway.) So what to do? Write code, of course!

If you think about it, this isn’t really all that different from the situation we have with spam. While various governments have banned spam (way to go up there, Canadia!), the reality is that it just keeps on coming. So we all use spam blocking software to detect it and get rid of it. Mostly this is provided by our email provider, like Google, so you might not even know it is happening. They detect spam using a couple of techniques. Some are based on content, but others just rely on lists of known spammers.

Thanks to the @PlagiarismBad project, we have a list of known plagiarists! Well, how about we set up a service that will automatically block them for you as they are added to the list? So that’s what I did for a few hours on Saturday while my wife was making soup and the kids had their noses buried in electronics.

The result is at listblocker.appspot.com if you want to try it out. You give it a list (it defaults to the list of known tweet thieves), and with one click you can block them all. You can also set it to automatically block new accounts as they are added to the list. So together with our curated list of tweet thieves, this is a plagiarism blocker for your twitter feed.

In case you are wondering, no I don’t have a profit motive. I started the plagiarism tracking project because I was sick of having this stuff in my feed. And I wrote the tool because I was sick of having to manually block people as I added them to the list. This is all about me, boys and girls. If the rest of you want to use my toys, you are welcome to. (None of this is costing me a penny, by the way. I’m hosting the app in a system provided by Google that has massive free quotas.)

Update: I wrote a tool to make tracking thieves easier.

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