Followers Disappear Amid
Inquiries Into Fake Accounts
Federal and state authorities are
investigating the sellers of
artificial followers and other fraudulent social media
NICHOLAS CONFESSORE, GABRIEL J.X. DANCE and RICH HARRIS
than a million followers have disappeared from the accounts of
dozens of prominent Twitter users in recent days as the company
faces growing criticism over the proliferation of fake accounts and
scrutiny from federal and state inquiries into the shadowy firms
that sell fake followers.
people losing followers include an array of entertainers,
entrepreneurs, athletes and media figures, many of whom bought
Twitter followers or artificial engagement from a company called
Devumi. Its business practices were detailed in a New York Times
article on Saturday describinga vast
trade in fake followers and fraudulent engagementon
Twitter and other social media sites, often using personal
information taken from real users. Twitter said on Saturday that it
would take action against Devumi’s practices. A Twitter spokeswoman
on Tuesday declined to comment about whether the company was purging
singer Clay Aiken, the actor John Leguizamo and the reality TV star
Lisa Rinna have each lost a substantial number of followers,
according to a review of their accounts. So has Martha Lane Fox, a
British businesswoman and Twitter board member. Other well-known
users have taken to Twitter in recent daysto
complain of lost followers, suggesting that a broad swath of
people may be affected, not just Devumi customers.
Close Look at Martha Lane Fox’s Followers
least 65,000 fake followers were bought for Martha
Lane Fox, a Twitter board member. Ms. Lane Fox
blamed purchases on a rogue employee.
dot shown here is an account that was recently
day after the Times investigation was published,
her follower count dropped byjust
over 46,000. But the distinct patterns
seen here suggest that many bots remain on the
company’s heightened campaign against bots comes as federal
lawmakers and law enforcement officials in two states are
scrutinizing Devumi and its competitors online, where numerous
websites sell fake followers or engagement on Twitter, LinkedIn,
YouTube, Instagram and other social media platforms.
Tuesday, Senators Jerry Moran of Kansas and Richard Blumenthal of
Connecticut — the chairman and the ranking member, respectively, of
the Senate subcommittee on consumer protection and data security —
asked the Federal Trade Commission to begin an investigation into
the “deceptive and unfair marketing practices” of Devumi and similar
companies. While Devumi promises customers “100 Percent Active,
English Followers,” virtually all of the followers and retweets the
company provides are fake, The Times found. Twitter prohibits buying
followers of any kind.
Florida attorney general, Pam Bondi, a Republican,has
also begun an investigationinto Devumi,
joining Eric T. Schneiderman, the New York attorney general and a
on Saturdaythat he would begin reviewing
whether the company had violated state laws against impersonation
and commercial deception.
Times found evidence that the information of Twitter users in every
state — including thousands of people in Florida and New York — had
been copied onto bots sold by Devumi or rival companies.
Distribution of Deception
least 55,000 fake accounts use the names, profile pictures,
hometowns and other personal details of real Twitter users,
including minors, according to a Times data analysis. The
original accounts list locations in all 50 U.S. states.
The New York Times
was based in Florida until recently but lists a New York City
address on its website. The company’s owner, German Calas, also
lives in Florida.
on the New York Times article, we have opened an investigation into
these very serious allegations,” Ms. Bondi said in an interview
Tuesday. “We would encourage any citizens who believe they have been
a victim of this scam toplease
contact the Florida attorney general’s officeimmediately.”
Calas did not respond to an email seeking comment. But on Monday,
Devumi’s parent company, Bytion,filed
paperworkin Florida indicating that it had
moved its principal place of business to Colorado. Jared Stark, a
lawyer for Mr. Calas’s business, said in an email that both
companies had relocated to Denver earlier in January, a move he
described as “in the works for some time.” He declined to comment on
the investigations into Devumi.
reporter visiting Bytion’s Denver office on Tuesday found it largely
empty, save for a few boxes against one wall and patio furniture on
a balcony. Gerald Sexton, Bytion’s director of people and culture,
declined to comment and said that Mr. Calas was not available.
few minutes later, a process server arrived at the office to deliver
a subpoena from Mr. Schneiderman’s office. A spokeswoman for Mr.
Schneiderman declined to comment.
disclosure of dozens of Devumi’s customers in entertainment,
politics and business has sparked a renewed debate — often carried
out on Twitter itself — about the prevalence of fraud and fakery on
social media, where tens of millions of fake users still roam.
Chicago Sun-Times announced on Monday that it would suspend
publishing reviews by the newspaper’s film critic, Richard Roeper,
while conducting a review ofhis
social media following. Mr. Roeper bought at least 25,000
followers from Devumi, according to records reviewed by The Times,
and an analysis of his account indicates that many of his nearly
quarter-million Twitter followers are fake accounts.
Twitter and Facebook verify the identity of some celebrities,
politicians and other high-profile users and include blue check
marks on their account pages, in part to prevent scam artists from
impersonating them. But a vast majority of accounts are not vetted
in the same way.
Twitter does not require that accounts be associated with a real
person. Mark Cuban, a prominent technology investor, tweeted on
Monday thatit was
time for Twitter to change that policy, and for Facebook to
tighten its requirements. Mr. Cuban elaborated over email, saying
that automated accounts, or bots, and impersonation on Twitter had
made him less enthusiastic about using the platform.
don’t think your user handle or profile has to reflect your actual
name or picture,” Mr. Cuban said. “I do think Twitter would benefit
from requiring every account(s) being tied back to an individual. If
someone wants to run a bot account, great, but identify a person
federal and state lawmakers have called for more stringent laws
regulating social media companies, in part to combat the epidemic of
fake accounts. Many fake accounts are deployed by Russia and other
countries seeking to influence American politics, but others are
used by marketing companies to influence consumers and even
Levine, a California state assemblyman from outside San Francisco,
introduced legislation on Monday that would require social media
companies doing business in California to link every account to a
human being. The legislation would also require that social media
companies allow only human account holders to place advertisements
on their platforms.
are any number of interest groups looking to shape public opinion,”
Mr. Levine said in an interview. “We’ve seen all of this exploited
and millions of people manipulated.”