Social media: Twitter’s fake follower problem
There are “counterfeit coins in the booming economy of online influence,” said Nicholas Confessore in The New York Times. An investigation by this newspaper has revealed that dozens of politicians, celebrities, and businesspeople have bought fake Twitter followers to make themselves look more popular online. Those counterfeit accounts, known as bots, were purchased from Florida-based Devumi, one of dozens of online firms operating in the “shadowy global marketplace for social media fraud.” Drawing on a stock of 3.5 million automated accounts—many of which use real people’s stolen photos and identities—Devumi has supplied customers with more than 200 million Twitter followers over the past few years and made more than $6 million in sales. Actor John Leguizamo has Devumi followers, as does swimsuit model and entrepreneur Kathy Ireland, and Ray Lewis, the football commentator and former NFL linebacker. In some cases, Devumi’s customers might be guilty of fraud, said Paul Farhi in The Washington Post. Companies now routinely pay thousands of dollars to “influencers”—celebrities with massive online followings—to plug products to their flock. But if an influencer pads his or her follower count with bots, “the companies are paying for something illusory.”
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is now investigating Devumi’s “impersonation and deception,” said Leonid Bershidsky in Bloomberg.com. “But the firm is just a tiny outfit with an office above a Mexican restaurant in West Palm Beach.” It simply procured fake accounts wholesale from bot makers and sold them, at a huge markup, “to people too lazy to source the bots on their own.” The bigger problem is that social networks don’t really seem to care about this fakery, perhaps because inflated user numbers help attract advertisers and boost stock valuations. By some estimates, up to 48 million active Twitter users—15 percent of the total—are automated accounts, while Facebook may be home to 60 million bots.
The simplest way to end this bot epidemic is to make users’ counts of followers, retweets, and likes private, said Ian Bogost in TheAtlantic.com. “The only reason there can be a market, let alone a black market, for social media engagement is because these services are marketplaces of attention, not of ideas, products, or services.” That’s never going to happen, said Jacob Brogan in Slate.com. The buzz of seeing your follower number climb after sending a particularly clever tweet is what keeps many people loyal to Twitter. And the more followers you get, the more your follower count “becomes an index of your own self-worth.” Buying followers is a simple way to make our lives “look fuller and richer than they already are.” We’re all less than we’d like to be. “Maybe it’s time to stop pretending otherwise.” ■