An expose published in the New York Times regarding the shadowy world of selling fake social media followers has sparked an investigation by New York’s Attorney General. The state of New York is now investigating Devumi, a company that sells followers, likes and retweets for social media sites, over its business practices. New York is accusing the company of basically selling stolen identities.
According to the report in the Times, at least of 55,000 of Devumi’s automated accounts use the real biographic details of real people, including their names, ages, and hometowns. Research showed that people from every state across the U.S. had been impersonated by the bots. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said via Twitter, “Impersonation and deception are illegal under New York law.”
According to Devumi’s website, customers can purchase from 500 to 250,000 Twitter followers, with prices starting at $12. Twitter likes and retweet plans are priced as low as $9 on the site. Devumi’s founder, German Calas says the company didn’t sell fake followers. He also claims he had no knowledge of identities being stolen from real users.
Many are concerned that the growing prevalence of bots means that those who can pay the most for followers can buy their way to apparent influence. Hollywood stars, athletes and social-media influencers who want to increase the number of Twitter followers they have and how many “likes” and retweets their posts receive can use firms like Devumi to boost their numbers.
Those who bought followers from Devumi include a wide range of well-known people. Some of the most prominent names on the list published by the Times were former model turned businesswoman Kathy Ireland, singer Clay Aiken, Shark Tank judge Lori Greiner, and Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson. The more popular they appear, the more money they can get paid for endorsement deals. Having many followers also entices others to follow those Twitter accounts.
On its website, Twitter said it doesn’t allow “the purchasing and selling of account interactions.” If a user is caught doing this, they may be suspended from the service. However, Twitter acknowledges that suspensions for such actions are infrequent because proving who bought illicit interactions is hard.
In recent years, there have been a series of federal and state inquiries into the commercial and political abuse of fake accounts on social media. Tens of millions of fake accounts have been deployed by firms like Devumi. They have commonly been used to attract customers, defraud businesses, and influence political debates online.
Bot makers are increasingly using actual personal data to make bots that seem look real. This helps trick Twitter into thinking a bot is not a bot. A study published by the University of Southern California and the University of Indiana in March found that between 9 percent to 15 percent of active Twitter accounts are bots. In October, Twitter reported having 330 million monthly active users.