If you click on a profile photo in Twitter, the photo will open in a tab of its own–and oftentimes will be larger, or more broadly cropped. I’d drag that onto my desktop, then run it through two image search engines: Tin Eye and Google Images. Each one scours the web for visual matches. After dozens of searches, a pattern emerged: Most bot photos had a long digital tail, having been posted on dozens of sketchy porn sites or blogs devoted to the barely legal. Occasionally, I’d be able to track a photo back to what seemed like an original source–like when a bot’s photo showed up alongside many others of the same woman, all posted to the fratboy site Barstool Sports. The site claimed her name is Aurora. But when I reached out, as was always the case, nobody cared to explain where the photos came from.
Then, finally, a reliable source: I tracked two bots back to the 2009 SUNshine Girls calendar, a lingerie showcase produced by the Toronto Sun. (I guess newspapers have to make money somehow.) The calendar only offered the models’ first names, and the paper’s photo editor wouldn’t connect me with them. But after a little Internet stalking–this is how reporting works, people!–I found a connection.