image: Unsplash

image: Unsplash

From politicians to actors, entrepreneurs to television personalities, famous figures have taken to buying fake social media followers to boost the credibility of their online – and off-line – profiles. While there has been widespread discussion over the use of bots in the recent past, a damning new element is in play this time around: The fake followers that people are buying from Devumi, a West Palm Beach-based “social media marketing company,” are not entirely fake; they are based on the accounts of real people. In fact, your name and photo may have been shopped around and sold.

The New York Times investigated Devumi’s business model in light of allegations that individuals’ account details and profile pictures had been copied en masse to create realistic “bots” and then sold; according to the Times, Devumi sold at least 3.5 million fake Twitter followers – which serve to boost an individual’s follower count and also automatically retweet and “like” posts – to its approximately 200,000 customers, all of whom are trying to gain social media leverage.

In an extensive report, entitled, “Follower Factory,” The New York Times revealed that everyone from Randy Bryce, the political hopeful, who is challenging House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) for his seat in Wisconsin and Louise Linton, wife of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, to Kathy Ireland, the former model and entrepreneur; Hilary Rosen, a CNN contributor; and Martha Lane Fox, a British Parliament member and Twitter board member, had purchased fake followers from Devumi in order to gain social media leverage.

How does it work exactly? Well, according to the Times, Devumi offers customers the chance to order up to 250,000 Twitter followers, with prices starting at $12. Clients can also buy “likes” and retweets. “Devumi has helped over 200,000 businesses, celebrities, musicians, YouTubers and other pros gain more exposure and make a big impact to their audience,” according to its website. For instance, for less than $4,000, actor Ryan Hurst, a star of the television series “Sons of Anarchy,” bought a total of 750,000 followers in the past two years, about three-quarters of his current count.

Sonja Morgan, a cast member on “The Real Housewives of New York City,” and former “American Idol” finalist, Clay Aiken were also pinpointed as using the service to boost their follower counts.

From what the Times calls a “shadowy global marketplace,” Devumi has brought in more than $6 million in revenue.

In speaking to the Times, Devumi’s founder, German Calas, 27, denied that his company sells fake followers and that he has no knowledge of stolen accounts. While little is known about Calas, the Times uncovered an online resume in which Calas also claims to have graduated from Princeton University, “at about the age of 10,” per the Time.  His online resume claims he received a PhD in computer science from MIT in 2002, when he would have been just 12 years old.

As for, Devumi, the company lists its address as being located on Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue, when in reality, its headquarters is a small office suite above a Mexican restaurant in West Palm Beach, the Times found.

And the issue extends far beyond Devumi. The paper asserts that other companies like Devumi have provided customers with “more than 200 million Twitter followers,” at least 55,000 of which “use the names, profile pictures, hometowns and other personal details of real Twitter users.”

As noted by the BBC, “On social media, high follower accounts boost influence, which can impact public opinion, or bring advantages, such as job offers or sponsorship deals, to account holders,” and this is exactly why New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced just hours after the release of the Times’ report that his office has opened an investigation into Devumi.

“Impersonation and deception are illegal under New York law. We’re opening an investigation into Devumi and its apparent sale of bots using stolen identities,” Schneiderman tweeted on Saturday. “The internet should be one of the greatest tools for democracy—but it’s increasingly being turned into an opaque, pay-to-play playground.”

Schneiderman further stated, “The growing prevalence of bots means that real voices are too often drowned out in our public conversation. Those who can pay the most for followers can buy their way to apparent influence.”

Devumi’s Twitter account was suspended following the release of the Times’ exposé, with the social media platform tweeting on Saturday, “The tactics used by Devumi on our platform and others as described by today’s NYT article violate our policies and are unnacceptable to us. We are working to stop them and any companies like them.”