What do the Special Prosecutor and the New York State Attorney General have in common? If you answered fake social media accounts and social media bots inflating followers, likes, tweets and retweets, you would be correct.
At the end of January, 2019, Attorney General Letitia James announced she had reached a settlement with Devumi LLC, which she described as “the first in the country” to find that selling fake followers and likes on social media is illegal deception and using stolen identities from real people is illegal impersonation. The Attorney General’s investigation began under James’ predecessor in response to an article posted online by The New York Times on January 27, 2018, entitled “The Follower Factory”. That article is the best source to understand the underlying facts.
Devumi operated a business through which individuals who wished to appear more popular and influential could purchase views on YouTube, plays on SoundCloud, endorsements on LinkedIn, as well as followers, likes and retweets on Twitter and other social media platforms. According to the Times, Devumi’s customers included the model Kathy Ireland, the former pro-football player Ray Lewis and even the Treasury Secretary’s wife. Engagement with the platforms was effected by using computer operated fake accounts, generally referred to as “bots”. In some instances, the social media personas of real people were “cloned” to create multiple accounts in multiple languages to create thousands of other accounts used to promote products or services, so-called “sock puppet” accounts. According to the Times, Devumi supplied customers with over 200 million followers, using 3.5 million accounts.
Reaction to the article was swift and resulted in Devumi ceasing operations when the publicity “caused a major decline in its sales”, according to the Attorney General. But Devumi is hardly the only entity or individual conducting similar questionable operations. A simple search for “Buy Followers” on Google will lead to links for many offering followers or likes for sale. The search is so common that Google has pre-programmed questions and answers related to the search as well as related searches targeted to specific social media platforms.
Fraud and deception related to influence on social media platforms are not limited to purchasing followers and likes. According to an article posed on-line by The Atlantic in December 2018, wanna-be professional “influencers” are also feigning sponsorship deals on-line to convince brands of their credibility as influencers—what the article aptly calls “faking it until you make it”.
While many athletes and performers have entered into lucrative endorsement deals with brands for many years, the influence they sell has been earned through a record of actual accomplishment in their professional fields. Roger Federer, for example, can endorse coffee machines and watches because he justly has earned fame based on long years of actual accomplishment playing professional tennis. The same cannot necessarily be said of professional “influencers” whose only claim to fame is an Instagram following that may or may not have been manufactured. So, when it comes to social media “influencers”, the watch word should be: let the buyer beware.
Credit: Helene M. Freeman