From celebrities, to famous companies, to high profile political figures. In the world of social media, it’s a simple equation. The more followers you get, the more influence you have.
But there can be more to those loyal online followers than meets the eye. Some of them are completely made up.
One study found that as many as 48 million of Twitter’s reported active users are automated accounts. Twitter claims the number is much lower.
But according to a New York Times investigation, others actually are real people whose profiles have been stolen by anonymous bot makers used to create a whole new account and re-sold by retailers as “counterfeit coins in the booming economy of online influence.”
“For some people that buy fake followers it’s about money. For some people, it’s about influence. And for a lot of people it’s both,” said Richard Harris, Graphics editor, New York Times.
A retailer called Devumi promises to “accelerate your social growth” by selling followers. Among its 200,000 customers are reality TV stars, athletes, pastors, and models. The cost is pennies for each follower.
The company is providing its clients with more than 200 million Twitter followers but the Times says it found that 3.5 million of those are fake accounts, with some seemingly taken from real people.
“We found over 50,000 bot accounts from every state in the U.S. and from around the world that had taken the biographical details from real Twitter users,” said Harris.
Devumi’s founder telling the Times his company does not sell fake followers, and had no knowledge of stolen social identities.
“If you’re a prospective employer and you search for someone on a social media site and you find that they’ve been re-tweeting graphic adult content or articles about bitcoin, they might not get the job. So there’s a real harm done through this process of mass idenity theft,” said Harris.
Some of Devumi’s high profile customers tell the Times they have regrets about buying followers.
And on his Twitter account, the New York Attorney General says he will be investigating Devumi for “its apparent sale of bots using stolen identities.”
“Until companies like Twitter no longer have the incentive to keep growing their user base at any cost, this isn’t a problem that is gonna go away any time soon,” said Harris.