Buying Fake Followers: The Market for Online Popularity

“Social media is a virtual world that is filled with half bots, half real people. You can’t take any tweet at face value. And not everything is what it seems.” So cautioned Rami Essaid, a cyber security expert about the cyber world of popularity.  One cannot assume that all those followers are real.  Companies cannot assume that when Twitter is abuzz about their companies, whether in praise or protest, that the dynamics of popularity or disdain are real.  There is a marketplace in which one can buy Twitter followers.  For example, Devumi has 3.5 million automated Twitter accounts, which it sells over and over again so that real Twitter account holders can appear to be more popular than they really are. Nicholas Confessore, et al. "Buying Online Influence From a Shadowy Market,"  New York Times, January 28, 2018 p. A1. 

Twitter estimates that about 15% of its accounts are automated.  Facebook recently adjusted its estimated fake users from 30 million to 60 million. These fake accounts are referred to as bots.  However, the automated may not be as damaging as another type of account found in the commercial sellers' data bases. Some of these accounts were acquired by "social identity theft."  The companies selling followers pick up real names and their account names online and then put them into their data base.  Real people often end up on sites that sell pornographic images.  In many cases, the easiest identities to steal are those of teenagers who spend a great deal of time online.  

Pool together the bots and stolen social identities and anyone willing to pay for the inventory of online sellers can influence everything from product success to elections. Enough complaints from the automated crowd and a business can be ruined. That influence is being wielded as a result of the work of shadowy companies.  Devumi, for example, is located in a single office suites above a Mexican restaurant in West Palm Beach, Florida.  However, the address online is in New York City. The company began when its owner was in high school, with a set of credentials that had him earning a graduate degree in physics from Princeton at age 10 and a PhD from MIT.  Neither school has any record of his studies. Currently his online profile boasts of an undergraduate degree in international studies, but the school has no record of ever offering such a degree,

 The reporters sent Devumi a sample of 10 of its bots that were real people on social media whose identities were being used without their permission.  Initially, the company requested more time, but eventually stopped responding the reporters' e-mails and requests for interviews.  AT least 1,000,000 Twitter users dropped their accounts once they read of the fake followers problem.  Some of them were promoting over 200 companies without their knowledge. 

Once the New York Times piece was published with the deceptive online information exposed, the New York Attorney general announced an investigation.  At least 55,000 of the followers being sold are people whose social media identity has been heisted and is now being sold across the web.   . New York has been at the forefront in prosecuting online crime. The focus of New York authorities is on the unauthorized use of identities. Computer crime statutes may not be specific enough to cover this type of theft.  Unauthorized access does not apply because the pictures and names are picked up from public areas.  One old-fashioned legal angle that may work is appropriation -- the use of someone's name, likeness, or image for commercial purposes without permission.  Also, Devumi itself could be prosecuted for fraud because the customers paid for followers who were not real.  Cyber crime statutes have not caught up with all of the actors and activity on the Internet. 

Devumi is facing legal challenges on the civil side as well. Currently, Devumi is in a legal dispute with a former employee who now runs DevumiBoost.  The former employee has contacted thousands of Devumi customers to have them "reprocess" their orders for followers by going to DevumiBoost.  Because the employee was in customer service, the customers recognized his name and followed his instructions, thus transferring customers from Devumi to DevumiBoost.  

The Internet has been called a "completely unregulated ecosystem." Devumi illustrates what can happen in the wild. 

DISCUSSION STARTERS

Explain possible legal avenues for addressing the Devumi issues.

What regulations might help?