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The Black Market for Social Media Manipulation

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Abstract and Figures

Around the turn of the decade, when the popularity of social media sites was really beginning to take off, few people noticed a secretly burgeoning trend — some users were artificially inflating the number of followers they had on social media to reap financial benefits. Even fewer noticed that organisations such as the Internet Research Agency were exploiting these new techniques for political gain. Only when this innovation in information warfare was deployed against Ukraine in 2014 did the world finally become aware of a practice that has now exploded into federal indictments, congressional hearings, and a European Union Code of Practice on Disinformation. At the heart of this practice, weaponised by states and opportunists alike, is a flourishing black market where buyers and sellers meet to trade in clicks, likes, and shares. NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Latvia and the Ukrainian Social Media analytics company Singularex have undertaken a joint venture to map the online market for social media manipulation tools and services. We have scanned the dark web and tracked down sellers, buyers, and victims in an attempt to understand what a potential customer, wishing to wage information warfare, can purchase online.
Content may be subject to copyright.
NATO StratCom COE
Singularex
COUNTERING
THE MALICIOUS
USE OF
SOCIAL MEDIA
THE BLACK MARKET
FOR SOCIAL MEDIA
MANIPULATION
ISBN 978-9934-564-31-4
ISBN: 978-9934-564-31-4
Authors: NATO StratCom COE
Research: Singularex
Project manager: Sebastian Bay
Text editor: Anna Reynolds
Design: Kārlis Ulmanis
Riga, November 2018
NATO STRATCOM COE
11b Kalciema iela
Riga LV1048, Latvia
www.stratcomcoe.org
Facebook/stratcomcoe
Twitter: @stratcomcoe
Singularex is a Social Media Intelligence and Analytics company based in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
Website: www.singularex.com
Email: hello@singularex.com
This publication does not represent the opinions or policies of NATO.
© All rights reserved by the NATO StratCom COE. Reports may not be copied, reproduced, distributed or publicly displayed
without reference to the NATO StratCom COE. The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity
and do not in any way represent the views of NATO StratCom COE. NATO StratCom COE does not take responsibility for the
views of authors expressed in their articles.
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Introduction
Around the turn of the decade, when the popularity of social media sites was really beginning
to take off, few people noticed a secretly burgeoning trendsome users were articially
inating the number of followers they had on social media to reap nancial benets. Even fewer
noticed that organisations such as the Internet Research Agency were exploiting these new
techniques for political gain. Only when this innovation in information warfare was deployed
against Ukraine in 2014 did the world nally become aware of a practice that has now exploded
into federal indictments,1 congressional hearings,2 and a European Union Code of Practice on
Disinformation.3
At the heart of this practice, weaponised by states and opportunists alike, is a ourishing black
market where buyers and sellers meet to trade in clicks, likes, and shares. NATO Strategic
Communications Centre of Excellence in Latvia and the Ukrainian Social Media analytics
company Singularex have undertaken a joint venture to map the online market for social media
manipulation tools and services. We have scanned the dark web and tracked down sellers,
buyers, and victims in an attempt to understand what a potential customer, wishing to wage
information warfare, can purchase online.
Social media manipulation is undermining democracy, but it is also
slowly undermining the social media business model.
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The White Market
Anyone interested in promoting content on
social media has a few basic social media
metrics to work with — followers, views,
likes, comments, and shares. Social media
platforms have developed a range of paid
advertising tools users can purchase to
promote their posts beyond their own set
of followers. More advanced users work
with advertising agencies to generate
reach, often through selected popular users
referred to as inuencers.
And just as newspapers with many
subscribers can charge more for advertising
than newspapers with fewer subscribers,
popular inuencers can charge more for
their services. Reports indicate that while
an inuencer with 100,000 followers might
earn $2,000 for a promotional tweet, an
inuencer with a million followers can earn
as much as $20,000 per promotional tweet.4
This social media ecosystem has many vul-
nerabilities, both technical and cognitive, that
can be exploited using inuence techniques
such as social proof, aming, deceptive iden-
tities, and bots.5 The most potent techniques
are now packaged and sold on the black mar-
ket of social media manipulation.
The Black Market
The black market of social media manipu-
lation is divided into three overlapping cate-
gories— the easily accessible open market,
the dark web, and the oine word-of-mouth
market.
These are all unocial channels that
provide users the opportunity to buy likes,
shares, comments, subscribers, and
accounts. Services range from vending
machines in Russia,6 to sophisticated
software and highly-managed information
manipulation services offering extensive
customer support.
This industry exists in contradiction to the
platforms’ Terms of Service, which don’t
allow likes, comments, or subscribers to
be bought; yet this is still legal in most
countries. A simple search on your favourite
search engine will produce a long list of
providers offering to sell tools and services
for social media manipulation. In fact, our
research team encountered a number of
paid ads on both Google and Bing promoting
social media manipulation tools.
These services operate in a grey zone and
actively develop ways to manipulate social
Understanding
the market
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media platforms. The black market services
are unregulated, unreliable, and come with a
number of disadvantages:
1. Technical risks— social networks
monitor and block users who
circumvent their terms of service.
2. Reputational risks— reputable
companies or inuencers risk
ruining their reputations if they
are discovered using black market
manipulation tools.
3. High risk interactions with
suppliers— as the supply side
operates in a grey zone, some
sellers extort their customers and
many of the advertised services are
fraudulent.
4. Unsustainable— although there are
a number of short-term benets, an
articially inated business model is
unsustainable in the long run.
Although there are a number of disadvan-
tages to using black-market tools, the
advantages are clearly attractive given the
availability of services.
1. Easy to avoid detection— although
social media companies work to
reduce inauthentic activity on their
platforms, they are not keeping pace
with the technological advancements
of the black market suppliers, which
means that it still easy to avoid
detection by both social media
companies and the public.7
2. Simple product— the products are
easy to understand and market, and
have a simple pricing structure.
3. Multiple choices— customers
have a wide range of choices, and
suppliers are constantly developing
new products.
4. Large potential reward— successful
social media manipulation can result
in substantial short-term nancial
and political rewards.
Our research team encountered a number of paid ads on both Google
and Bing promoting social media manipulation tools.
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The Dark Web
The ‘dark web’8 has become a safe haven
for illegal, and often immoral activity. A Tor
browser can give anyone with an Internet
connection access to the dark web. But the
dark web is dicult to navigate due to a lack
of functional search engines and reliable
services. As we began our investigation, we
assumed that the most advanced services
would be found there. However, after having
searched extensively we concluded that
although social media manipulation tools and
services can be found on dark webforums
and websites, prices are signicantly higher
than on the open Internet.
Although the dark web offers more advanced
forms of social media manipulation than the
open Internet, including tailored hacking of
targeted accounts, we found no evidence of
a market for advanced inuence operations
there.
The easiest way to explain the lack of
services for social media manipulation
on the dark web is that there is no reason
to hide if you can advertise your products
in the open. An abundance of suppliers
use traceable domains to advertise their
services, they process payments openly, and
even place ads on popular search engines to
attract customers.
The Black Market: Tools
This section provides information regarding the range, pricing, and types of black market social
media manipulation services available online.
Fake accounts
Fake or compromised accounts serve as
the basic tool for gaining access to a social
media platform, a requirement for being
able to manipulate the platforms with fake
likes, views, comments etc. The price of
purchasing such accounts largely depends
on the level of network security for a given
platform the harder it is to register and
maintain an account, the higher the price.
The following characteristics affect the
price of a fake account:
Account type
As in any other market, the cost of
creating/maintaining a service inuences
its price. Accounts that can be registered
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automatically are the cheapest but also
the least reliable, while accounts that
are registered manually are more reliable
but also more expensive, as are genuine
accounts that have been hacked.
Automatically registered
accounts— these accounts are
registered using programs designed for
the purpose and are usually not very
sophisticated.
Manually registered accounts— these
accounts are registered by human
operators and can often be padded with
custom content.
Hacked accounts— these are accounts
that belong to real people whose
credentials have been hacked or stolen.
Because of their genuine historical
record hacked accounts are better at
circumventing platform safeguards.
Hacked accounts are sometimes
seen as consumables for collecting
information about users, or as part of
ashort-term targeting scheme, because
the legitimate owner can retake control
of the account. However, since the real
owners sometimes lack the will and
ability to regain access, such accounts
sometimes remain under the control of
malicious users.
Account verication
Social media accounts can be veried by
phone and by e-mail. Veried accounts
are more expensive, but less likely to be
blocked. The quality of the verication
process is also a price factor — manual
verication is more reliable, while
automatically veried accounts are at
greater risk of being blocked and the
work done through these accounts (likes,
comments etc.) deleted.
Content
The more content provided for a maliciously
created account the more realistic it will
look. Depending on the task an account
is required to perform, a higher level of
perceived authenticity can be more or less
desirable. A basic account is usually sold in
four set categories:
a. accounts with no content
b. accounts with a prole picture
c. accounts with a prole picture and
afew photos
d. accounts with a prole picture,
photos, and a range of posts
In addition to these general bulk cate-
gories more advanced services offer
custom-made, highly-developed accounts
that are nearly impossible to differentiate
from genuine accounts.
Account age
The history of an account, its age, is
important for trust and credibility. The
market offers accounts with a wide range of
ages— from days to 7+ years old. The older
the account, the more expensive it is, as an
old account is less likely to be detected as
malicious.
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The Black Market: Segments
The price and quality of social media manipulation services can differ greatly depending on
the time and efforts sellers need to produce the manipulation. We mapped a large number of
social media manipulation services and were able to distinguish between three different price/
quality segments.
3rd category: The low-end segment provides the cheapest products with the lowest quality,
such as automatically registered, but unveried accounts. These accounts have no content
or prole picture, and all or most subscribers are bots. Low-end likes and comments are also
created automatically by bots. There is a high probability that these accounts are identied
and blocked, but as research by the NATO StratCom COE has shown, many simple bots on
Twitter often survive long enough to enable them to produce upwards of 5000 posts, which
still allows them to serve specic purposes.9 These low-end segment products are easy for
potential buyers to nd using a standard search engine.
Manipulating Social Metri
A large number of resellers offer social
metrics manipulation (likes, comments,
shares, views, followers, etc.) for all major
platforms. Social metrics manipulation is
accomplished using a range of tools:
a. fake automated accounts
b. special ‘freelance’ platforms
(usually employing people from
developing countries)
c. ‘likes exchanges’ where users are
offered likes in return for likes
d. malicious software acting
without a user’s permission,
e.g.through browser extensions or
malware
Many suppliers also offer ‘trending content’
services on platforms such as YouTube.
Some suppliers also offer manipulation
of specied targets such as web panels,
surveys, or recommendation sites in order
to manipulate the outcome of a political
survey or smearing a business competitor
etc.
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2nd category: The mid-range segment consists of accounts that are mostly registered
automatically. However, these accounts cost more because they are veried and contain basic
user information reducing the risk that they are quickly identied and blocked. Tasks executed
from these accounts are often performed automatically, but are also sometimes managed in
bulk by human operators.The mid-range segment is harder for the potential buyer to nd, and
buyers may struggle to distinguish trustworthy service providers from those selling low-end
services at a higher price. Navigating this market requires experience.
1st category: The high-end segment consists of accounts that have real friends and
subscribers, content, and unique prole pictures. They are veried by phone/email and have
been registered for at least one year. Such accounts are often genuine, but hacked, or manually
registered and populated over time. Likes are added by real users and comments are written
manually. These accounts can be tailored to specic demographics for a target audience with
variables such as country, gender, and age. Subscribers to high-end accounts are often real
users. Suppliers use all the tricks of their trade to create the appearance of real user activity so
as not to arouse the suspicions of security systems and reduce the probability of blocking. The
high-end segment is dicult to nd without a personal referral from someone with experience
in the market.
Comparative analysis of prices
Our analysis of the comparative cost of services in selected segments for various social
networks (Fig. 1) reveals a number of patterns. For YouTube there is a clear relationship
between price and quality the higher the price the higher the quality. For Facebook likes
are cheaper than subscribers, but for Instagram the opposite is truelikes tend to be more
expensive than subscribers.
The overall pattern, however, is that the expected linear relationship between quality and price
can’t be seen. Normally the price of a service is related to the cost of the production. For the
social media manipulation market this often isn’t the case— the price of a low-quality service
can be as high as the price for a high quality service, while different providers offer equivalent
services at hugely different prices. This indicates that the market is largely dysfunctional in
terms of cost and quality, and supply and demand.
The social media manipulation market is largely dysfunctional in
terms of cost and quality, and supply and demand.
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YouTube Facebook
Instagram Twitter
Figure 1. Comparative analysis of the price of subscribers, comments, likes, and accounts as oered by dierent service pro-
viders. Each dot represents the price of a specic service from a specic service provider.
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Automation soware
Suppliers selling mid- to low-range services
use automation software. To further our
understanding of the tools available we
conducted an in-depth assessment of one
of the most popular software packages for
social media manipulation. This software
package is marketed from a public web page
that offers a comprehensive knowledge-
base, video tutorials, and 24/7 support to
help their customers use their software as
effectively as possible. The development
team consists of about 20 people and the
business has an ocial account at a Russian
bank. Most of their marketing activities are
aimed at the private market.
This software package comes with two
modes an ‘assist mode’ and a ‘technical
mode’. The ‘assist mode’ allows the
purchaser to ensure that the account
controlled by the software operates
within credible parameters to keep the
account from being banned. It is likely that
developers have reverse engineered the
social media companies’ defense protocols
to increase the survivability of the assisted
accounts. The ‘technical mode’ is used
to maintain and control accounts, as well
as to gather information (usually from
competitors’ accounts).
The technical features of the software
package include:
Account registration
Data collection from target social
media accounts
Assessment of collected data based on
meta-data and search queries
Execution of bulk subscriptions, likes,
and follows— the software can predict
the likelihood of a genuine account
liking or following another account in
return based on their historical behavior
Posting comments en masse and
mass messaging; a large number of
automated accounts and long waiting
periods are required if such operations
are to avoid detection by social media
platforms
Such software packages rely on a number of
subcontractors. Some of these subcontrac-
tors provide accounts, while others provide
the infrastructure needed to register, verify,
and maintain them, and to reduce the risk of
detection, such as mobile proxies and virtu-
al sim-cards, and cloud hosting.
We identied two other developers who provide
software of similar quality and scope (with
24/7 support and a wide range of functions)
and a number of small-scale providers who
offer cheaper and simpler services. Although
the service providers we have been able to
identify are based in a variety of countries, the
three main software developers and the bulk
of infrastructure maintenance services are
Russian entities and many of them operate
openly from Russia.
While it is possible for individual users to
install and operate these software packages,
it requires substantial know-how. To bridge
the knowledge-gap many service providers
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and re-sellers offer services resembling a
standard online shopping experience. This
makes it easy for the general population to
buy social media manipulation services.
The industry as a whole consists of several
layers software development, infrastruc-
ture maintenance, and the provision of tech-
nical services.
From a customer’s point of view the automa-
tion tools used for the low-end and mid-range
segments are sucient for most commercial
goals, but to solve more complex problems
high-end, manual services are needed.
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ACCOUNTS
MANAGEMENT
PLATFORM
SERVICE PROVIDER
SOCIAL MEDIA
SimCards, Digital fingerprint,
Scripts and Capture services
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High-end Services – Price range
An overall assessment of the high-end ser-
vices segment (Fig. 3) shows that Instagram
manipulation is the cheapest and YouTube
manipulation is the most expensive. Boost-
ing numbers of subscribers or followers is
the cheapest service, while generating com-
ments is the most expensive.
The price difference between platforms
can likely be attributed to the diculty
in providing the services, however
nancial gain is also a possible reason
as ad-platforms such as YouTube provide
immediate nancial rewards to users with
articially boosted performance ratings.
The wide range of prices suggests that the
market is ineffective due to limited sales
channels, legal restrictions, and lack of
knowledge among buyers.
Freelance platforms
While organisations with in-house staff
provide some of the high-end services, such
work may also be outsourced to freelancers
who perform simple tasks such as liking,
commenting, reposting, reporting, voting
in polls, etc., with minimum risk to the
service provider or the accounts supported.
The simplest tasks are often performed
by individuals willing to work for less than
$1per hour.
YouTube
Facebook
Instagram
Twitter
Fig. 3. High-end segment prices
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The Black Market: Campaign Management
To further our understanding of high-end social media manipulation services, we found a service
provider who agreed to an interview. This person described an industry that distinguishes itself
from automated social media manipulation by providing start-to-nish campaign management
services, rather than simple clicks and likes. According to our interviewee, clients are usually
politicians or businesses that have no qualms about manipulating social media to achieve their
desired end-state.
Top-tier freelance platforms, such as
Upwork, are also involved in social media
manipulation. Researchers have found
requests posted in Upwork for people willing
to write hyper-partisan news stories. Writers
are paid anywhere from $1.50 to $50 dollars
per story, with some employers expecting
up to ten stories a day from each writer.10
DDoS
Distributed Denial-of-Service (DdoS) attacks
are used to take websites or servers oine
at critical times. Such attacks are often
used in ransom schemes and inuence
operations. The price of a DDoS attack is
relatively small, starting from $5 for attacks
on small websites lasting a few minutes
to upwards of $200 dollars for large-scale
attacks on small- to medium size websites.
We were unable to nd any service providers
offering large-scale DDoS attacks on major
websites, indicating that such services
aren’t sold in the open.
DDoS 2.0
Since the majority of online conversations
have moved to social media platforms,
the number of traditional DDoS attacks
has decreased. It is dicult to mount a
successful DDoS attack on Facebook or
Google because of the sheer volume of
ordinary trac. As a result a new form of
DDoS attacks has emerged. Coordinated
attacks are now staged on pages inside
social media platforms using automated
or manual accounts that falsely report
accounts or post triggering the platforms
to take down content or ban accounts for
moderation. Although the effect is usually
temporary, this new form of directed attack
achieves much the same purpose as
traditional DDoS attacks once did. This type
of attack is used to curtail the work of civil
rights activists, independent journalists, etc.
by attacking their social media accounts to
preassure them to stop using the platforms.
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High-end service providers combine automated and personalised techniques and use a number
of information distribution channels such as blogging, planted news stories, and attempts to
inuence journalists, to achieve signicant effect. High-end campaigns also combine open
social media advertising tools with malicious activity to reach a wider audience.
For a campaign to succeed it is important to manufacture impact on conventional media.
Therefore, high-end service providers spend a great deal of effort on creating content that
will get picked up by traditional media, but they also promote curated news stories online and
suppress negative news coverage.
A large campaign would includes automated account management, the creation and promotion
of specied content, as well as manipulation of real-life events to generate online and oine
news coverage.
Conclusions
There is a large, vibrant online market for buyers and sellers of tools and services for social
media manipulation. Some customers want more likes on their photos, some want to prot
nancially at the expense of the ad industry, and others want to inuence the outcome of
elections. Regardless of the end goal, the tools used are much the same.
Social media manipulation is undermining democracy, but it is also slowly undermining the
social media business model. During the past year, the social media giants have committed
to better protect their platforms. Anecdotal evidence suggests this has led to an increase in
the cost of manipulation tools and services. Despite the commitments of online platforms
and leading social networks, codied in the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation, this study
shows it is still surprisingly cheap and easy to manipulate social media.
Our research resulted in four surprising conclusions.
First, we were impressed by the scale of the black-market infrastructure for developing
and maintaining social metric manipulation software, generating ctitious accounts, and
providing mobile proxies and solutions for SMS activation.
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Second, we were struck by the openness of this industry. This is no shadowy underworld,
it’s an open and accessible marketplace most users can nd with little effort through any
search engine.
Third, we were surprised to nd service providers advertising on Google and Bing.
Providers tracking in YouTube manipulation services buy ads from Google—the owner of
YouTube—and fearlessly promote their services in public.
Lastly, we were intrigued to learn that Russian service providers seem to dominate the
social media manipulation market. Virtually all of the major software and infrastructure
providers we were able to identify were of Russian origin.
The dark web—it turns out—is the least of our worries.
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1 ”Internet Research Agency Indictment | Department of
Justice”. Accessed 04 December 2018.
https://www.justice.gov/le/1035477.
2 ”United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary”.
Accessed 04 December 2018.
https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/download/04-10-18-
zuckerberg-testimony.
3 ”Code of Practice on Disinformation”. Digital Single Market.
Accessed 04 December 2018.
https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/news/code-
practice-disinformation.
4 Confessore, Nicholas, Gabriel J. X. Dance, Rich Harris, och
Mark Hansen. ”The Follower Factory”. The New York Times,
27 January 2018, avs. Technology.
ttps://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/01/27/
technology/social-media-bots.html
5 Pamment, James, Howard Nothhaft, and Alicia Fjällhed.
“Countering Information Inuence Activities: The State of
the Art.” (2018).
6 Matsakis, Louise. ”This Russian Vending Machine Will Sell
You Fake Instagram Likes”. Motherboard (blog), 06 June
2017. https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/xw8yv3/
russian-vending-machine-fake-instagram-likes.
7 ”Reducing Inauthentic Activity on Instagram”. Instagram
(blog), 19 November 2018.
https://instagram-press.com/blog/2018/11/19/reducing-
inauthentic-activity-on-instagram.
8 The dark web is the World Wide Web content that exists
on darknets, overlay networks that use the Internet but
require specic software, congurations, or authorization
to access. ”Dark Web”. Wikipedia, 04 December 2018.
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dark_
web&oldid=871937241.
9 Fredheim, Rolf. ”Robotrolling 4/2018”. NATO StratCom
COE, November 2018. https://www.stratcomcoe.org/
robotrolling-20184.
10 @DFRLab. ”INFLUENCE FOR SALE: Who Writes Your
Hyperpartisan News”. Medium (blog), 05 July 2017.
https://medium.com/@DFRLab/inuence-for-sale-who-
writes-your-hyperpartisan-news-8ba64ddafd58.
Endnes
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Prepared and published by the
NATO STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS
CENTRE OF EXCELLENCE
The NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence (NATO StratCom COE) is a
NATO accredited multi-national organisation that conducts research, publishes studies,
and provides strategic communications training for government and military personnel.
Our mission is to make a positive contribution to Alliance’s understanding of strategic
communications and to facilitate accurate, appropriate, and timely communication
among its members as objectives and roles emerge and evolve in the rapidly changing
information environment.
Operating since 2014, we have carried out signicant research enhancing NATO nations’
situational awareness of the information environment and have contributed to exercises
and trainings with subject matter expertise.
www.stratcomcoe.org | @stratcomcoe | info@stratcomcoe.org
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
The Follower Factory
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Mark Hansen. "The Follower Factory". The New York Times, 27 January 2018, avs. Technology. ttps://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/01/27/ technology/social-media-bots.html
Countering Information Influence Activities: The State of the Art
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Pamment, James, Howard Nothhaft, and Alicia Fjällhed. "Countering Information Influence Activities: The State of the Art." (2018).
This Russian Vending Machine Will Sell You Fake Instagram Likes
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Matsakis, Louise. "This Russian Vending Machine Will Sell You Fake Instagram Likes". Motherboard (blog), 06 June 2017. https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/xw8yv3/ russian-vending-machine-fake-instagram-likes.
The dark web is the World Wide Web content that exists on darknets, overlay networks that use the Internet but require specific software, configurations, or authorization to access
The dark web is the World Wide Web content that exists on darknets, overlay networks that use the Internet but require specific software, configurations, or authorization to access. "Dark Web". Wikipedia, 04 December 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dark_ web&oldid=871937241.