Normally the most annoying thing you’ll see in the replies to a viral tweet are the people firing off creepy and/or rude comments to the writer. But if you scroll down far enough, one increasingly common phenomenon you’ll find is a link to a sketchy website trying to sell you garbage.
Apparent scammers have recently been using seemingly empowering, relatable tweets to go viral, then threading them into a crafted story whose conclusion is a link to sign up for, say, a three-month weight-loss teatox program.
On September 15, a now-defunct account with the username @ashleyeats tweeted the following: “you ever see a girl in denial about being in a toxic relationship and want to grab her by her face and tell her how much better her life will be once she comes to her senses :/ that shit is the absolute worst to just stand by and watch after you’ve been through it all yourself...”
The thread, which managed to get an astronomical 83,000 retweets, continues for another 30 posts, weaving a story about “Ashley’s” struggle with her ex-boyfriend, who’d control her actions and force her to eat in front of him, thereby causing her to gain weight. It includes dozens of photos and videos documenting the weight fluctuations of a woman who is presumably Ashley, who is also presumed to be in an abusive relationship.
But as the story continues, the focus is more and more on Ashley’s weight loss progress, which she claimed was due to a mysterious program she’d seen floating around social media. She then includes videos of a woman reviewing a weight loss program, though the women in the photos looks suspiciously different from the previous photos.
That’s because neither of the women is Ashley at all — most of the photos had been stolen from a cam girl on a fetish site, while the videos of the woman reviewing the shakes were ripped from a YouTuber named Vanessa Blanco.
Despite the initial positive response (Twitter tends to reward a weight-loss narrative), users were pretty quick to realize once they got to the final few tweets and clicked the links that it had all been a scam to sell Therma Trim, a shady diet supplement.
It’d be easy to dismiss the @ashleyeats thread as just another part of the world we live in today, one where celebrities use their influence to shill dubious products all the time, and conclude that we simply have to be more aware about how viral marketing practices target us. But just because both of those things are true doesn’t mean this type of advertising doesn’t have serious consequences. And it isn’t the first time this has happened.
The untold consequences of viral scam threads
The account @ashleyeats may have been suspended, but the story isn’t over for the cam girl from whom she stole the photos, which provided the bulk of the emotional potency in the thread. The model, who specializes in feederism, a fetish involving eating and weight gain, spoke to Motherboard under the condition of anonymity. She said that not only was she outed as a sex worker to her friends and family, but that her weight loss was in actuality a result of anorexia and cocaine abuse.
“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. I’ve had multiple of my friends send me the thread and I had to tell them about what I’ve been doing and all in all, it’s really embarrassing,” she said.
Plus, the entire story rests on a likely fake account of emotional abuse as a way to sell a product that is, in all likelihood, a dangerous laxative. As others on Twitter have noted, the thread is also deeply fatphobic and preys on young women’s anxieties about weight. And yet, these reasons likely contributed to how far the thread was able to travel.
The @ashleyeats account was suspended and the thread has been deleted, but as Motherboard noted, numerous other accounts, such as @ashleysjourney, sprouted up in its place and tweeted the exact same thread, gaining thousands of retweets before they too were taken down.
A similar thread went viral last month, when a user named @chaobella tweeted “i love when dudes from high school hit me up like ‘i don’t know why we didn’t talk when we were younger’ umm because y’all made fun of me? a thread...”
This one uses a similar tone as that of @ashleyeats — it’s presumed to be written by a woman who, once upon a time, had experienced bullying or abuse, and seems like she’s interested in helping others. In both cases, the “twist” is that bullying or abuse no longer happens to her because she lost a dramatic amount of weight. And it too ended up using stolen photos, in a scam to sell Nutra-SX Garcinia Cambogia, another sketchy weight loss pill.
People have always attempted to capitalize on viral success
To be fair, social media posts that happen to go viral are almost always met with a reply from the original poster with a link to something they want to get more eyeballs on — their Instagram handle, YouTube page, or, as is so often parodied, their Soundcloud account. The difference is that in the cases of @ashleyeats and @chaobella, they’re threads that are specifically constructed to go viral, but are done under false pretenses using predatory tactics.
There can, however, be a little bit of a gray area here. Last year, a tweet from a woman named Dorthy Holmes went viral that depicted the baby shower of her best friend, Chelsie Collins. “Nobody showed up to my best friends baby shower. Just my boyfriend and me :(” it read, accompanied by four photos of empty chairs and tables and the expectant mother looking despondent.
The tweet evoked enough sympathy to garner more than 16,000 retweets before it was deleted, but in that time span, Dorthy had published Chelsie’s Walmart gift registry and a link to her PayPal. According to reports at the time, more than 350 gifts were purchased for Collins, which is also around the time people started getting suspicious. One Twitter user claimed to have called the restaurant where the shower took place and said that all 12 guests had indeed showed up, leading to numerous accounts claiming the whole thing was a scam.
In an interview with Select All, however, Holmes and Collins said that even though more people did eventually arrive, at the time it was posted it was all true. Holmes said that she originally wrote it “to fuck with my online mutuals” and that Collins received less than $100 anyway.
Then there was the #PlaneBae saga from this past July, in which a woman used her riveting yet deeply intrusive viral thread about a couple who seemed to be flirting on a plane to ask for a film deal and a job at BuzzFeed. Though she eventually apologized, it was difficult not to see the situation as someone attempting to secure fame and money by invading the privacy of two unsuspecting strangers. The photos might not have been stolen from a cam girl or a YouTuber, but the couple never asked for their likenesses and activities to be dissected on the Today show.
Accounts can easily mimic the tone of viral tweets to sell you stuff
Though the perpetrators of #PlaneBae and the sad baby shower didn’t seem to engineer their virality in an effort to sell stuff, those who do can easily mimic the tone and voice of viral tweets in a way that makes their marketing seem more organic.
@HornyFacts, a handle with more than 4 million followers that tweets stereotypically relatable content about sex and relationships such as, “date idea: just come over and sleep, that’s it,” recently retweeted an account posing as NBC News that claimed a mysterious new drug would soon be available to try. (The account, which has since been suspended, seemed to exist solely to shill the same pill.)
The practice isn’t limited to Twitter, either. Popular meme Instagram accounts pretty uniformly make their sponsored ads look like any other meme on their page, for everything from their own merch to sketchy lash gel to dubious vaginal steaming products. So it’s no surprise that now, people selling weight-loss programs are taking the practice one step further by adopting the tone of elaborate viral threads.
All this goes to show that pretty much every time something gets even remotely popular on a social media network, scammers will find a way to make money off of it — without any concern for the identity and privacy of others.