US company sells over 200 million twitter followers

Bot accounts are the counterfeit currency of online influence

“We take the action of suspending an account from the platform very seriously,” Twitter said. “At the same time, we want to aggressively fight spam on the platform.”

“We take the action of suspending an account from the platform very seriously,” Twitter said. “At the same time, we want to aggressively fight spam on the platform.”

 

The real Jessica Rychly is a Minnesota teenager with a broad smile and wavy hair. She likes reading and the rapper Post Malone. When she goes on Facebook or Twitter, she sometimes muses about being bored or trades jokes with friends. But on Twitter, there is a version of Jessica that none of her friends or family would recognise.

While the two Jessicas share a name, photograph and whimsical bio, the other Jessica promoted accounts hawking Canadian real estate investments, cryptocurrency and a radio station in Ghana. The fake Jessica followed or retweeted accounts using Arabic and Indonesian, languages the real Jessica does not speak. While she was a 17-year-old high school senior, her fake counterpart frequently promoted pornography.

All these accounts belong to customers of an obscure US company named Devumi that has collected millions of dollars in a shadowy global marketplace for social media fraud. Devumi sells Twitter followers and retweets to anyone who wants to appear more popular or exert influence online.

Automated accounts

Drawing on an estimated stock of at least 3.5 million automated accounts, each sold many times over, the company has provided customers with more than 200 million Twitter followers, a New York Times investigation found.

“I don’t want my picture connected to the account, nor my name,” Ms Rychly, now 19, said. “I can’t believe that someone would even pay for it. It is just horrible.”

These accounts are counterfeit coins in the booming economy of online influence, reaching into virtually any industry where a mass audience – or the illusion of it – can be monetised. Fake accounts infest social media networks. By some calculations, as many as 48 million of Twitter’s reported active users are automated accounts designed to simulate real people, though the company claims that number is far lower.

Former model and businesswoman Kathy Ireland: accounts were purchased
Former model and businesswoman Kathy Ireland: accounts were purchased

In November, Facebook disclosed to investors that it had at least twice as many fake users as it previously estimated, indicating that up to 60 million automated accounts may roam the world’s largest social media platform. These fake accounts, known as bots, can help sway advertising audiences and reshape political debates. They can defraud businesses and ruin reputations. Yet their creation and sale fall into a legal gray zone.

“The continued viability of fraudulent accounts and interactions on social media platforms ? and the professionalisation of these fraudulent services – is an indication that there’s still much work to do,” said Democrat Senator Mark Warner, the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has been investigating the spread of fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

Despite rising criticism of social media companies and growing scrutiny by elected officials, the trade in fake followers has remained largely opaque. While Twitter and other platforms prohibit buying followers, Devumi and dozens of other sites openly sell them. And social media companies, whose market value is closely tied to the number of people using their services, make their own rules about detecting and eliminating fake accounts.

Fake followers

Devumi’s founder, German Calas, denied that his company sold fake followers and said he knew nothing about social identities stolen from real users. “The allegations are false, and we do not have knowledge of any such activity,” Mr Calas said in an email exchange in November.

“We take the action of suspending an account from the platform very seriously,” she said. “At the same time, we want to aggressively fight spam on the platform.”- Twitter

The New York 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. For just pennies each Devumi offers Twitter followers views on YouTube; plays on SoundCloud, the music-hosting site; and endorsements on LinkedIn, the professional-networking site.

Actor John Leguizamo has Devumi followers. So do Michael Dell, the computer billionaire, and Ray Lewis, the football commentator and former Ravens linebacker. Kathy Ireland, the onetime swimsuit model who today presides over a half-billion-dollar licensing empire, has hundreds of thousands of fake Devumi followers. Even Twitter board member Martha Lane Fox has some.

Kristin Binns, a Twitter spokeswoman, said the company did not typically suspend users suspected of buying bots, in part because it is difficult for the business to know who is responsible for any given purchase. Twitter would not say whether a sample of fake accounts provided by the New York Times – each based on a real user – violated the company’s policies against impersonation.

“We continue to fight hard to tackle any malicious automation on our platform as well as false or spam accounts,” Ms Binns said.

Real people

To better understand Devumi’s business, we became a customer. In April, The New York Times set up a test account on Twitter and paid Devumi $225 for 25,000 followers. The first 10,000 or so looked like real people. They had pictures and full names, hometowns and often authentic-seeming biographies. One account looked like that of Ms Rychly, the young Minnesota woman.

But on closer inspection, some of the details seemed off. The account names had extra letters or underscores, or easy-to-miss substitutions. The next 15,000 followers were more obviously suspect: no profile pictures, and jumbles of letters, numbers and word fragments instead of names.

Company records reviewed by the New York Times revealed much of what Devumi and its customers prefer to conceal. Most of Devumi’s best-known buyers are selling products, services or themselves on social media. In interviews, their explanations varied. They bought followers because they were curious about how it worked, or felt pressure to generate high follower counts for themselves or their customers.

While some said they believed Devumi was supplying real potential fans or customers, others acknowledged that they knew or suspected they were getting fake accounts. Several said they regretted their purchases. “It’s fraud,” said James Cracknell, a British rower and Olympic gold medalist who bought 50,000 followers from Devumi. “People who judge by how many likes or how many followers, it’s not a healthy thing.”

Several Devumi customers or their representatives contacted by the New York Times declined to comment, among them Mr Leguizamo, whose followers were bought by an associate. Many more did not respond to repeated efforts to contact them. A few denied making Devumi purchases. They include Ashley Knight, Mr Lewis’ personal assistant, whose email address was listed on an order for 250,000 followers, and Eric Kaplan, a friend to President Donald Trump and motivational speaker whose personal email address was associated with eight orders.

Self-described influencers

Several Devumi customers acknowledged that they bought bots because their careers had come to depend, in part, on the appearance of social media influence. “No one will take you seriously if you don’t have a noteworthy presence,” said Jason Schenker, an economist who specialises in economic forecasting and has purchased at least 260,000 followers.

Actor John Leguizamo: accounts purchased
Actor John Leguizamo: accounts purchased

More than 100 self-described influencers – whose market value is even more directly linked to their follower counts on social media – have purchased Twitter followers from Devumi. At least five Devumi influencer customers are also contractors for HelloSociety, an influencer agency owned by the New York Times Company. (A spokeswoman said the company sought to verify that the audience of each contractor was legitimate and would not do business with anyone who violated that standard.) Lucas Peterson, a freelance journalist who writes a travel column for the New York Times, also bought followers from Devumi.

Influencers need not be well known to rake in endorsement money. According to a recent profile in the British Sun, two young siblings, Arabella and Jaadin Daho, earn a combined $100,000 a year as influencers, working with brands such as Amazon, Disney, Louis Vuitton and Nintendo. Arabella, who is 14, tweets under the name Amazing Arabella.

But her Twitter account – and her brother’s – 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.

After emailing Mr Calas last year, a reporter visited Devumi’s Manhattan address, listed on its website. The building has dozens of tenants, but Devumi and its parent company, Bytion, do not appear to be among them. A spokesman for the building’s owner said neither Devumi nor Bytion had ever rented space there.

Like the followers Devumi sold, the office was an illusion. According to former employees interviewed by the New York Times, turnover was high at Devumi, and Mr Calas kept his operation tightly compartmentalised. Employees sometimes had little idea what their colleagues were doing, even if they were working on the same project.

Review accounts

The ex-employees asked for anonymity for fear of lawsuits or because they were subject to nondisclosure agreements with Mr Calas’ companies. But their comments are echoed in reviews on Glassdoor, where some former employees said Mr Calas was uncommunicative and demanded that they install monitoring software on their personal devices.

Last month, Mr Calas asked for examples of bots the New Yrok Times found that copied real users. After receiving the names of 10 accounts, Calas, who had agreed to an interview, asked for more time to analyse them. Then he stopped responding to emails. Ms Binns, the Twitter spokeswoman, said the company did not proactively review accounts to see if they were impersonating other users. Instead, the company’s efforts are focused on identifying and suspending accounts that violate Twitter’s spam policies.

All of the sample accounts provided by The Times violated Twitter’s anti-spam policies and were shut down, Ms Binns said. “We take the action of suspending an account from the platform very seriously,” she said. “At the same time, we want to aggressively fight spam on the platform.”

In January, after almost two years of promoting hundreds of Devumi customers, the fake Jessica Rychly account was finally flagged by Twitter’s security algorithms. It was recently suspended. But the real Jessica Rychly may soon leave Twitter for good. “I am probably just going to delete my Twitter account,” she said.

– New York Times Service