This weekend, a Twitter user shared a disturbing story that verged on the surreal. In a 32-tweet thread, Ashley recounted an abusive relationship with a boyfriend who forced her to eat until it caused her pain — seemingly for his own sexual pleasure.
“he didn’t let me talk to anyone, never let me leave the house w/o him and he had this really weird obsession with watching me eat,” wrote Ashley. “it got to a point where he started forcing me and sometimes it even made me feel sick to my stomach! apparently he was into a sexual fetish called ‘feederism’ and it aroused him.”
Ashley’s story soon went viral, racking up more than 80,000 retweets and 300,000 likes. It was also completely fake.
As the thread continued, it detailed Ashley’s road to weight loss after breaking up with her ex, featuring dozens of progress pics. These photos (and Ashley’s avatar) were stolen from an amateur fetish model. The model’s face and body were being used to tell a viral tale of abuse that, ultimately, transitioned into an advertisement for a weight loss regimen called “Sarah’s programme.”
Sadly, she’s not alone. Gizmodo found nearly 30 Twitter accounts that appeared to impersonate 13 different real women to push diet pills, regularly getting thousands of retweets and tens of thousands of likes. Some were already suspended when we began working on this story, but new versions appeared every day. (All of the active Sarah’s programme accounts we found were suspended after we reached out to Twitter about them.) We also talked to three victims who said their photos were stolen for the scheme, as well as the operators of two Twitter accounts who claimed they were paid to promote Sarah’s programme tweets.
In the end, our investigation uncovered an eerily dystopian approach to the age-old grift of selling diet pills, one that incorporated a variety of shady internet tactics, including catfishing, plagiarised tweets, manufactured virality, and fake news sites. For the women whose photos were stolen — a group that included everyone from Instagram fitness personalities to feederism fetish models — the violation left them with the bizarre task of proving which version of their online selves was real.
The formula for virality
“Sarah’s programme” may be a familiar phrase to some Twitter users, as threads promoting it have been going viral on the site for months. Generally, a user with a handle like “@chaobeIIa” or “@byemollyxo” starts a thread by plagiarizing a relatable tweet that previously went viral. The account then details their struggle with weight gain, bullying, or abuse in a confessional tone, attaching numerous photos of a woman’s body over time. Finally, the thread links out to an amateurish fake news page on a site like “healthnewscenters.org.” That page, further detailing the supposed research of a Stanford student named “Sarah Johnson,” then links to a site selling products like forskolin or garcinia cambogia: diet supplements that aren’t reviewed by the FDA for safety or effectiveness.
Bella then recounts her struggles with low self-esteem over her appearance as a teenager before ultimately finding Sarah’s programme, which she tries despite initial scepticism.
Soon, the pounds shed off, all thanks to Sarah’s programme, which can be read about on a fake news site that links out to the diet supplement sales page “tryketocomplete.com.” (We reached out to Forskolin Keto Complete for comment, but didn’t receive a response.)
In reality, however, Bella’s photos are over 20 images taken from Instagram user @deylachka, who has struggled to get fake accounts like this one taken down. We found her, and several other women whose photos appear in Sarah’s programme threads, by reverse image searching the photos. For women like Deylachka, it feels like there is little they can do to stop the imposters.
Speaking with Gizmodo over email, Deylachka expressed extreme frustration with Twitter’s reporting system.
“i have seen the posts and tried numerous times to block and report them,” said Deylachka. “i’ve even asked my followers to report them as well. there was like 6 ‘Bellaxo’ accounts using my pictures promoting this pill and people were buying it!!”
After personally reporting the accounts, “Twitter did NOTHING,” Deylachka added. “all accounts were still up. i even sent them a scan of my passport to prove my identity. NOTHING.”
Personal trainer Regan Patterson, who has had her photos stolen by multiple Sarah’s programme accounts, was similarly angered by the situation.
“I’ve seen my stuff on twitter and try to report it and twitter says it’s not enough proof,” Patterson, who said she submitted identifying info to Twitter, told Gizmodo over Instagram. “I’m like how can a whole account using my photos not be enough proof?”
She, too, eventually asked her tens of thousands of followers to mass report an impersonator account, which was finally suspended. “Luckily I have a following but what if I didn’t?” said Patterson.
For the fetish model whose photos were stolen by Ashley, this is more than a hypothetical question. She told Motherboard that the weight loss images came from her struggles with cocaine and anorexia, and she tried to reach out to the Ashley account personally.
“[T]hey blocked me smh,” she told the site. “The whole situation has really freaked with my sense of privacy and paranoia, because this fetish is VERY private to me and taboo to the rest of the world really.”
Motherboard reports that the account was taken down after they asked Twitter whether it violated the site’s impersonation rules.
Even if the women in the photos succeed in getting one account taken down, almost identical accounts soon pop up. When asked if there was a way for users to report multiple accounts simultaneously, or stop particular images from being misused on the site, Twitter directed us to a blog post noting the company is increasingly trying to fight spam before it’s reported, using tools like machine learning to identify offending accounts automatically.
When we began writing this story, however, doppelgangers of all three of these women were posting about Sarah’s programme on Twitter, with some threads already going viral again. But how?
Cash for retweets
While the Sarah’s programme threads seem to be carefully engineered to go viral, having a compelling story isn’t enough if no one sees your tweets. Fortunately for the pill spammers, these threads are regularly retweeted by hugely popular aggregation accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers.
These junky Twitter accounts, which have names like “Cute Pets,” “What Girls Want,” and “College Probs,” specialise in tweets and images with wide appeal that previously appeared elsewhere online. Their bios frequently include email addresses to contact for “promo,” that is, running paid promotional Twitter campaigns for third parties. When done through multiple accounts simultaneously, this cash for retweets scheme is known as “tweetdecking,” and is an easy way to monetise popular Twitter accounts.
“It’s the simplest thing ever, all you do is have your friends join and you have fun and tweet and make money,” one tweetdecker told Buzzfeed earlier this year. “No hard work at all.”
Coordinated retweets across multiple accounts violate Twitter’s spam policy, and in February, the company vowed to crack down on it. In March, some of the biggest aggregation accounts were suspended, apparently for violating spam rules, according to Buzzfeed. As with the Sarah’s programme accounts, however, creating new ones is simple. (When asked for comment, Twitter pointed us to the same blog post, which states the company is now removing over 200 per cent more accounts for spam violations, and daily spam reports dropped from 25,000 to 17,000 between March and May.)
Through Twitter DM, Gizmodo spoke with a user operating @tattoosfact, which has over 500,000 followers and has retweeted Bella and Ashley threads. According to them, these retweets were paid for via PayPal. They claimed to control several similar accounts, including @MyBaeMsgs and @FeelingsBible, which have also retweeted Sarah’s programme threads. Combined, they said, their accounts get 1 million impressions — the metric Twitter uses to count how many times a tweet shows up in someone’s timeline — each day.
When asked about their rates, @tattoosfact said $15 buys 100,000 impressions. The operator of @CraziestSex, which has over 700,000 followers and has also retweeted Sarah’s programme accounts, told Gizmodo over email they charged $30 for each of the retweets. They claimed each of their tweets gets around 200,000 impressions.
Unfortunately, these exchanges brought Gizmodo no closer to discovering who was actually making the Sarah’s programme accounts or why. @tattoosfact refused to say who was footing the bill and @CraziestSex stopped responding to our questions. To learn more, we looked closer at the fake news pages that were directly promoting the diet supplements.
Inside fake news
The Sarah’s programme threads link to seemingly identical fake news pages, but there are subtle differences between them. While the images and most of the text are the same, the featured miracle product might be “Slim Natural” or “Teal Farms Garcinia.” These names link out to various diet supplement sites, routed through affiliate marketer URLs that track where the traffic came from.
The pages are hosted on a variety of domain names, which have shifted over time. Older Sarah’s programme tweets led users to “insidebusinessdaily.com.” These days, misguided clickers are more likely to end up on “healthnewscenters.com.” All of these domains have their registrant information obscured. However, we found a public directory on one site that definitively linked the fake news page back to Sarah’s programme tweeters.
In August, a tweet from a Bella account linked to “health-news.ga/weight-loss/ItsMellaXO.” By removing the final folder name, we found a directory that hosted several folders and .zip files that share names with Sarah’s programme accounts. Within the zipped files are copies of the fake news page linking out to products like “FORSKOLIN™” and “Keto Ultra Diet™.”
Together, this information paints a picture of a pill spam ecosystem with at least three discrete players. There are the sellers that actually offer the pills, using a subscription scheme the FTC calls “negative-option marketing” and has resulted in legal action in the past. There are the spammers, who likely get money for leading people to the seller pages through imposter accounts and fake news pages. And then there are the promoters, the social media power users who signal-boost the spammer’s profiles and pages.
This arrangement isn’t unique to Twitter. Earlier this year, BuzzFeed reported that model Blac Chyna shared a woman’s weight loss photos with her 14 million Instagram followers, tagging a spammy profile that similarly linked to a fake news weight loss page. Unlike the Twitter promoters, Blac Chyna’s post included an #ad hashtag, providing cursory transparency. The real woman pictured in the photos (which were used without permission) then asked her followers to comment on Blac Chyna’s post, which was eventually deleted. Blac Chyna appears not to have responded to BuzzFeed’s request for comment on the controversy.
It’s a confusingly multifaceted scheme, but knowing how it works doesn’t explain the strangest part of the Sarah’s programme story. Dieting marketers have repurposed weight loss pictures for ages, but why go to the trouble of creating entire alternate identities for these women, complete with intimate retellings of their pasts?
The evolution of a catfish
When the earliest iterations of the fake news pages appeared on Twitter in June of 2017, the Stanford student with the incredible discovery was purportedly a woman named “Nicole Andrews” and she herself was tweeting an article about her work on “health-news-center.com.” (HTML code from the health-news.ga pages shows that they were copied from this domain.) Multiple users, however, soon called out Nicole as a self-promoter and a fake.
Early this summer, the pages reappeared with a craftier approach. Nicole was back as “Sarah,” but other users were now celebrating her story as well. And instead of directly promoting the fake news pages, these accounts used threads front-loaded with popular plagiarised tweets or emotional stories to help spread the word.
“You call yourself ugly but you’ve only seen yourself when you look at the mirror,” begins one thread from July. “My mom has been making fun of me for this ever since I could remember,” starts another.
In August, the plagiarised tweets and personal stories approaches were combined, with numerous stolen photos attached as well, creating entire identities centred around pics taken from Instagram influencers who had lost large amounts of weight. These accounts shared painful stories of bullying, self-doubt, and thoughts of suicide. “i used to eat until i fell asleep every night and i really just wanted to end life,” reads one thread from this time.
This month, however, the threads took another strange turn. Three of the newest identities use photos of three different models in the feederism fetish community, which is centred around fantasies of helping someone else gain weight — a fact that surely inspired Ashley’s alarming story.
We reached out to several accounts advertising Sarah programme’s on Twitter, but never received a response.
Human after all
Spamming might seem like an automated process, but the evolution of this scheme shows the work of a human intelligence. Through trial and error, the Sarah’s programme spammer advanced from making crude overtures to sharing endorsements by disturbingly well-realised characters. In the end, social media trained them how to fully resemble a person. Or, at least, the kind who gets tens of thousands of retweets.
Most of us like to believe we can spot a shill, but social media makes it harder than ever. Platforms like Twitter don’t just surface posts likely to please us, they teach us how to emulate this content, rewarding us with likes and shares when we do. For actors with a direct profit motive — whether they’re major brands, aggregation accounts, or diet pill spammers — it becomes both easy and lucrative to emulate real people.
By constantly sharing our thoughts and interacting with those of others online, we have provided valuable data for our malicious dark doubles, who look like us, talk like us, and now even have emotional false memories like the androids of Blade Runner. But in an unsettling twist on that film’s premise, the machines are teaching humans how to be human — to sell diet pills.
As nightmarish as the Sarah’s programme scheme is, it also feels inevitable, a culmination of all the worst things about the internet.
“What the fuck they aren’t just using my pictures for an ad they made a fake profile,” said one woman on Reddit who was alerted to the use of her photos by Gizmodo. “This thing is so weird.”
We asked Twitter if 16 active Sarah’s programme accounts violated the site’s impersonation and spam rules, and they were suspended shortly afterward. The Reddit user, however, doubted the spammers could be stopped.
“This bitch is still going to do it and she isn’t the only one,” she said.
Featured illustration: Angelica Alzona (Gizmodo)