For years, there has existed an underground market in which individuals and companies buy and sell fake social media followers, along with fake likes and comments. 

These markets are an open secret and while fake accounts obviously violate the rules of popular social platforms like Facebook and Twitter, they have persisted.

But it looks like fake follower economy is set for a potentially big fall. 

This past Saturday, New York attorney general Eric T. Schneiderman opened an investigation into Devumi, a prominent purveyor of fake followers.

A New York Times exposé published the same day Schneiderman announced his investigation concluded that Devumi was in control of more than 3.5m fake Twitter accounts and has used them to sell more than 200m fake followers on the popular social media platform.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Devumi's business is that many of the fake accounts are alleged to use photos and other personal information taken from the social media profiles of real users. In other words, Devumi is accused of engaging in a form of social media identity theft.

Impersonation and deception are illegal in New York, and that's the angle attorney general Schneiderman is taking in pursuing Devumi.

An inconvenient truth

How did Devumi and shady businesses like it get so big? The answer is simple: there's big demand for fake followers and engagement on social platforms like Facebook and Twitter. And this demand often comes from the very individuals and businesses who would like the world to believe that they need Devumi's “services” the least:

The Times reviewed business and court records showing that Devumi has more than 200,000 customers, including reality television stars, professional athletes, comedians, TED speakers, pastors and models. In most cases, the records show, they purchased their own followers. In others, their employees, agents, public relations companies, family members or friends did the buying. 

Why would high-profile individuals and companies risk their reputations buying fake followers? It's simple economics. As the New York Times revealed, the cost of fake followers and engagement actions is often measured in pennies, a small price to pay for inflated metrics that can lead to big bucks.

Virtually all of those big bucks come from brands, of course, which have embraced influencer marketing in all its forms in an effort to better connect with consumers online.

Just how badly are brands being duped?

Thanks to the rise of influencer marketing, there are influencers routinely earning five, six and even seven figures for sponsored social media posts. How much they earn is largely a function of the size of the audience they appear capable of reaching. The bigger the audience, the bigger the paychecks.

While there are tools and methods brands can use to assess the quality of an influencer's audience, none are perfect and it would seem few brands are doing significant due diligence on their influencer marketing transactions. In many cases, sponsored social media posts are bought through automated or semi-automated platforms, or by ad agencies.

All indications are that some if not much of the spend is for naught. Case in point: the Times identified two teenagers, Arabella and Jaadin Daho, who reportedly earn $100,000 annually through influencer marketing. They have worked with brands including Amazon, Disney, Louis Vuitton and Nintendo.

But, according to the Times, their Twitter accounts “are boosted by thousands of retweets purchased by their mother and manager, Shadia Daho, according to Devumi records. Ms. Daho did not respond to repeated attempts to reach her by email and through a public relations firm.”

An urgent wake-up call

This sort of dubious social media arbitrage, in which supposed influencers turn pennies into dollars at the expense of brands using fake followers and engagement, is obviously not healthy and is also unsustainable.

While the existence of what can only be described as fraud has been known for some time, companies like Facebook and Twitter face numerous technical challenges in cracking down on fake accounts. They have also been disincentivized from engaging in major purges of accounts, even if they're fake. That's because, just as it is for influencers, more is better for these companies. 

But the recent news, which included the revelation that a Twitter board member purchased at least 65,000 fake followers, along with law enforcement action, suggests that the fake follower economy is now too big to ignore.

Already, Twitter is apparently cleaning house. As The Daily Mail detailed, a number of high-profile users are seeing their follower numbers drop significantly in the wake of the Times piece. And one celebrity – Great British Bake Off judge Paul Hollywood – has deleted his Twitter account after being outed as a Devumi customer.

For everyone involved, the writing is on the wall. Savvy brands whose dollars have largely fueled this craziness will get in front of the collapse and adapt their influencer marketing and broader social strategies accordingly.

Further reading:

Patricio Robles

Published 6 February, 2018 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (2)

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, Founder and Author at Fresh Relevance

This happens a lot on facebook too. My wife has done some investigation and shown me several fake accounts.

To make them seem real, the creators populate them - Frankenstein style - by mixing together names, pictures and biographies taken from closely-related groups of real people.

Some accounts that I've seen were based on details of real people in the UK+US navies. Others were based on real people in my wife's home town. For example there was one with my wife's name and the profile picture of her childhood neighbour.

We reported the fake account with my wife's name to facebook as an experiment, but they didn't take it down.

7 months ago

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Alastair Mack, European Media Manager at Honda Europe

Fascinating and quite scary article. Does really seem that influencer marketing needs the shake up (in terms of transparency) that programmatic is getting.

6 months ago

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