Over the weekend, The New York Times reported on an obscure American company named Devumi, which sells Twitter followers to anyone who wants to appear more popular online, often using fake social media accounts to do so, and collecting millions of dollars as a profit. The New York Times review of Devumi’s records found that the company has issued its customers with over 200 million Twitter followers in total, doing so by drawing on an estimated stock of at least 3.5 million automated accounts.
Many of Devumi’s automated accounts closely resemble those of real people. At least 55,000 use the names, profile pics, hometowns and other personal details of real Twitter users, including minors. Devumi is now finding itself in hot water because several states, including California and New York have outlawed online impersonation, which involves the use of a false persona to cause another fraud or to provoke harm, including reputation smears.
The New York state attorney general is now investigating Devumi, which it can do because the company lists a New York City address on its website. A spokesperson for the company told The New York Times that it had never rented in the Seventh Avenue space listed, nor had its parent company Bytion; and is actually based out of a small office suite in Florida. However, Attorney General Schneiderman has made it clear he wants to determine whether Devumi broke New York state’s law. The penalty in New York for online impersonation is only a misdemeanour charge, involving a maximum penalty of $1,000 and one year in jail.
“The Internet should be one of the greatest tools for democracy—but it’s increasingly being turned into an opaque, pay-to-play playground,” Attorney General Schneiderman tweeted. “The growing prevalence of bots means that real voices are too often drowned out in our public conversation. Those who can pay the most for followers can buy their way to apparent influence.”
Devumi’s customers number around 200,000, including politicians, actors, reality TV stars, comedians, TED speakers, pastors and models. In most instances, the company’s records show that individuals purchased followers. However, publicists, employees, agents, friends and family members have also done the buying, which is generally pretty cheap. Devumi’s founder, German Calas, in an email exchange in November denied that his company sold fake followers, in particular stealing identities from genuine users, saying “The allegations are false, and we do not have knowledge of any such activity”.
High follower counts are imperative for “influencers”, YouTube stars and amateur tastemakers where advertisers will spend huge amounts on sponsorship deals. The more people that influencers reach, the more money they make. According to data collected by Captiv8, a company, which connects influencers and brands, an influencer with 100,000 followers could earn an average of $2,000 for a promotional tweet; an influencer with a million followers might earn $20,000.
“You see a higher follower count, or a higher retweet count, and you assume this person is important, or this tweet was well received,” said Rand Fishkin, the founder of Moz, a company that makes search engine optimization software. “As a result, you might be more likely to amplify it, to share it or to follow that person.”
Devumi does not appear to make its own bots or fake social media accounts; rather it purchases them wholesale “from a thriving global market of fake social media accounts”. These sites, such as Peakerr, CheapPanel and YTbot, tend to be less user-friendly, accepting only cryptocurrencies and having a bare bones feel. The accounts they sell may repeatedly change hands; and sometimes the same account is available from more than one seller.
According to research from the University of Southern California and Indiana University, between 9-15 per cent of active Twitter accounts are bots rather than real people. The company claims that the number is far lower. In November, Facebook told investors that it had at least double the number of fake users that it had previously estimated, meaning that there could be up to 60 million automated accounts on the world’s largest social media platform. These fake accounts can have a huge impact. They can sway political opinion and shape cultural currents. They can defraud businesses and destroy reputations. However, social media companies create their own rules about detecting and eliminating fake accounts, which have no outside scrutiny.
Twitter did suspend Devumi’s account on Saturday after publication of The New York Times article. However, some critics believe that it has an incentive to let such abuse happen. Rami Essaid, the founder of Distil Networks, a cybersecurity company set up to eradicate bot networks, said “We’re working with completely unregulated, closed ecosystems that aren’t reporting on these things. They have a perverse incentive to let it happen. They want to police it to the extent it doesn’t seem obvious, but they make money off it.”
A wider political momentum is growing to investigate and work out how to stop the spread of fake social media accounts on social media platforms. “The continued viability of fraudulent accounts and interactions on social media platforms — and the professionalization of these fraudulent services — is an indication that there’s still much work to do,” said Senator Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.