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The Follower Factory: Selling Online Popularity

Faking followers on social mediaFollowing an in-depth report by a team of New York Times journalists entitled The Follower Factory in January, social-media follower-selling company Devumi could be in hot water. New York’s chief prosecutor is investigating charges of fraud and identity theft against the firm, saying that ‘deception and impersonation’ are illegal.

The executives at Devumi aren’t the only ones suddenly very worried by their nefarious practices being exposed - people who bought fake followers from the company are also terrified of the ridicule that will ensue if they are found out. They include members of the British government, celebrity chefs, journalists and editors around the world, and thousands of networkers, lobbyists and politicians.

And that’s before we even venture into the world of online “influencers”, working in spheres from fashion to food to casinos, to music. The amount companies are prepared to pay these online entrepreneurs to punt specific brands is directly related to the number of followers they have on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, so they stand to lose a lot if they’re found to have been buying non-existent followers.

All of which is leaving anyone who isn’t desperate enough to buy followers for their social media feeds chuckling with glee, but some of them are also puzzled. Sure, the buyers are guilty of buying fake support - and if they’re making money based on those numbers, possibly fraud - but how are the sellers guilty of identity theft?

How the Bots Steal Identities

It is alleged in The Follower Factory that Devumi provides fake followers in their millions by creating bot accounts. These are automatic accounts that can be programmed to follow a set list of names on a database, while ‘liking’ and sharing their content. They can even add stock, generic phrases of praise or agreement, to appear more ‘human’.

But the tedious and laborious part of the process is creating real-sounding unique account names that aren’t just a string of characters and numbers; an immediate bot giveaway. The easiest way to get around this is to harvest a whole lot of real user names with real identities behind them, often including pictures that the victims have posted online. This means that if you have any online presence you could be at risk, whether it is a social media profile, a casino online account or a profile with an online betting NZ site.

These accounts are then cloned; often with a number inserted to create a ‘new’ identity, or even more subtly, for example, by changing a capital letter ‘i’ to a lowercase ‘l’, making the famous name from a real celebrity’s account look totally normal.

Why is this a problem? Well, apart from all the ramifications of people being able to buy the appearance of popularity on social media, or the way dangerously antisocial movements can drown out opposition by using fake followers to megaphone their opinions online, there can also be consequences for the people whose identities are stolen.

Their ‘names’ - looking identical to the real thing - can crop up following or ‘liking’ some truly hateful opinions, and if that sort of misinformation comes to the attention of the people they live and work with, it can have nasty consequences.

It’s great the law are now involved, but with so many dodgy companies selling followers, you should search your name on all your social media apps and on Google occasionally, and report any clones. Fortunately, casino and betting sites enforce far stricter security policies than say, Facebook or Twitter, but it is worth keeping tabs on these too, just in case.