Have you bought Twitter or Facebook followers? Federal and state investigations are underway into the sellers of fake followers and bot engagement.
More than a million followers of famous people – who presumably bought the fake followers to pump up their numbers – have literally disappeared in the past few weeks, according to the NY Times. Is Twitter purging the followers or are the sellers going into retreat mode? Nobody is saying. Twitter recently, however, dumped more than a thousand accounts tied to Russia that may have been spreading propaganda during the last election cycle.
Among the celbs the NY Times calls out are Clay Aiken, John Leguizamo, and some reality TV stars. They also pointed to Martha Lane Fox, a Twitter board member with 65,000 fake followers. Richard Roeper, a well known film critic, was suspended by the Chivcago Sun Times after it was determined he had bought 50,000 followers from the company under the microscope, Devumi. Roeper’s is deleting that account and starting over to build his Twitter audience, according to Deadline, after apologizing. The Sun-Times has agreed to reinstate him.
U.S. Senators Jerry Moran (Kansas) and Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut) of the Senate’s subcommittee on consumer protection has asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to begin an investigation into the practice. They are specifically asking about the practices of Devumi (and others) that advertise active followers for sales, but deliver fake accounts, inactive accounts, and bots.
We are “seeking an investigation into deceptive and fraudulent practices that ‘have the effect of distorting the online marketplace and creating a false sense of celebrity, credibility, or importance in people, companies, or institutions that may not deserve it.’” – Sens. Moran, Blumenthal letter to FTC.
In addition, the practice often breeds identity theft, where the pictures and names of real people are used to create fake accounts.
“According to data analysis by The Times, Devumi operates from ‘an estimated stock of at least 3.5 million automated accounts.’ Even worse, Devumi appears to be complicit in a massive social media identity theft operation. At least 55,000 of these accounts use ‘the names, profile pictures, hometowns and other personal details of real Twitter users, including minors.’” – Sens. Moran, Blumenthal letter to FTC
The Florida Attorney General is doing likewise. Florida AG Pam Bondi called it “very serious allegations” and is asking residents to come forward if they have been victimized. Bondi is specifically looking for people that may have had their identitites stolen to create fake social media accounts.
“The Florida Attorney General’s Office is investigating recent allegations of social media identity theft involving West Palm Beach Company Devumi and related company Bytion. If you or someone you know has had their identity stolen and used to create a fake social media profile on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or any other social media platform please file a complaint with our office using the form below.” – Florida AG’s office
Here’s the full text of the letter to the FTC:
The Honorable Maureen Ohlhausen
Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20580
Dear Acting Chairman Ohlhausen:
We write regarding the disturbing New York Times investigation over the weekend into Devumi, an American company that sells a panoply of social media actions, including followers, on some of the biggest social media websites, including Twitter and YouTube. The company bills itself as a marketing company that can help clients increase their social media presence. In reality, the company allegedly uses bots to create fake social media accounts – evidently deceiving its own clients and creating tens of thousands of victims of a unique kind of social identity theft. This company seems engaged in unfair or deceptive practices, and we urge you to use all the tools at your disposal to take immediate action to investigate this company, along with any other similar services, and shut down any fraudulent practices they are engaged in.
Devumi’s website – still live – offers any clients willing to pay a smorgasbord of social media influence: followers, retweets, and likes on Twitter; views, subscribers, likes, dislikes, and shares on Google’s YouTube; plays, followers, likes, reposts, and comments on SoundCloud, the music-hosting site; followers, likes, and repins on Pinterest, the discovery and inspiration site; plays and followers on Vimeo; and followers and endorsements on LinkedIn, the professional networking site.
The advertising on Devumi’s website belies its reported practice of purchasing bots to generate fake social media accounts and interactions. For example, regarding its YouTube-related services, Devumi advertises, “100% Real Views from Real People.” Yet this is clearly not the case. According to data analysis by The Times, Devumi operates from “an estimated stock of at least 3.5 million automated accounts.” Even worse, Devumi appears to be complicit in a massive social media identity theft operation. At least 55,000 of these accounts use “the names, profile pictures, hometowns and other personal details of real Twitter users, including minors.”
Devumi’s fraudulent practices are likely linked to widespread consumer harms. The inflated number of followers, retweets, and the like enabled by Devumi’s services have the effect of distorting the online marketplace and creating a false sense of celebrity, credibility, or importance in people, companies, or institutions that may not deserve it.
As you know, Section 5 of the FTC Act (15 U.S.C. §45) provides the FTC authority to bring enforcement actions against deceptive or unfair marketing practices. We urge you to use this statutory authority to investigate deceptive and unfair practices of these social media influencing services and take appropriate action. We respectfully request a response by February 14, 2018.