Recently, a coworker noticed something strange in his Twitter mentions.
He noticed that number of accounts had copied, verbatim, a tweet I'd sent a few days earlier, which had included the Twitter handle of said colleague. The accounts all used my Twitter handle (@hreins), but with one letter added to the end — @hreinsx, @hreinsn, @hreinsr, and so on. But the accounts did not use my photo, name, or bio. Instead, most of them were styled with the bio, photo, and name of those awful parody accounts from the movie Ted. (see here if you're fortunate enough to be unfamiliar). A little piece of different people — all brought alive for an unknown spamming purpose! Call them the Frankenbots.
Because they were only mimicking my tweets, and not following me or mentioning me in them, I didn't learn of their existence until the bots copied a tweet that included my coworker's Twitter handle. But once I did, I had to investigate.
I searched all 26 letters of the alphabet, and I found 17 bots.
Most were the aforementioned and unfortunate Ted accounts. But some took on the physical identity of "Mark Hillary." They did the same thing — tweeted my tweets, but with the picture and bio of a writer in Brazil.
Not every account tweeted every tweet. Different ones seemed to delve further back, choosing different days or weeks from my Twitter timeline and replicating those tweets.
It was strange, and confusing, but also mostly hilarious and almost artistically bizarre.
"There's an odd poetry to seeing your disembodied tweets," gchatted a coworker when some of the bots copied a tweet from a few days prior that had mentioned her.
It was time to investigate further. I found the real Mark Hillary, indeed a writer in Brazil, whose bio and photo had been co-opted in this strange web.
Turns out Mark had the same thing happening to him. There were @markhillaryx's and @markhillaryn's. Similarly, they cloned some of his tweets at random under two different physical identities. One was an apple, and one was Hillary Clinton. The web got stranger.
The whole thing was pretty innocuous for me, but Mark told me in an email that it had become a source of annoyance for him, because he's organizing a government visit to Brazil for British artists. The event's government website has a plugin window showing tweets about the event. "So of course, several of the fake accounts show up there," he explained. "Fortunately none of the diplomats have called me out on it yet."
Is it simply the plight of people with "Hillary" in their name?
Not quite. On Wednesday, Slate's Katy Waldman wrote about being victim to a similar Revenge Of The One-Letter-Bots situation. Her bots, unique as they all are, were dedicated fans of a Mexican popstar named Dulce Maria. "Anyway, I feel like one of those primordial Greek monsters with her brood of half-human, half-beast children around her," she wrote.
So. What the hell is this?
I emailed Rob Waller, founder of Status People, a site that can check how many of your followers are "fake" and presented the quandary.
"I haven't seen what you have described exactly before," he wrote. "I would assume though they are some sort of fake follower bot that is attempting to look more legit." In other words, the likeliest bet is that they're real-seeming bots for when people buy Twitter followers.
He explained that "bots have tried to become more 'real'" by using real or real-seeming bios and by producing content.
"I don't blame Twitter for most of the issues though," he added. "They have to maintain an open network so spam will always be an issue whatever they do. Just like email..."
I don't blame Twitter either. I reported most of the accounts, and passed on their names to a contact at Twitter who forwarded it on to Twitter's spamfighting gurus, and most of the bots have been suspended.
It's not often anymore that the modern internet — especially on brand-colonized social media channels — hands you something bizarre. The bots, while maybe a little annoying, felt like a throwback to an older, slightly untamed internet. But now they're gone, and I sort of miss them.