“The Follower Factory” in the New York Times details how many public figures and social media users purchase followers.
The 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 — sometimes even less — Devumi offers Twitter followers, views on YouTube, plays on SoundCloud, the music-hosting site, and endorsements on LinkedIn, the professional-networking site.
The 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, as does Akbar Gbajabiamila, the host of the show “American Ninja Warrior.” Even a Twitter board member, Martha Lane Fox, has some.
At a time when Facebook, Twitter and Google are grappling with an epidemic of political manipulation and fake news, Devumi’s fake followers also serve as phantom foot soldiers in political battles online. Devumi’s customers include both avid supporters and fervent critics of President Trump, and both liberal cable pundits and a reporter at the alt-right bastion Breitbart. Randy Bryce, an ironworker seeking to unseat Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, purchased Devumi followers in 2015, when he was a blogger and labor activist. Louise Linton, the wife of the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, bought followers when she was trying to gain traction as an actress.
Devumi’s products serve politicians and governments overseas, too. An editor at China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, paid Devumi for hundreds of thousands of followers and retweets on Twitter, which the country’s government has banned but sees as a forum for issuing propaganda abroad. An adviser to Ecuador’s president, Lenín Moreno, bought tens of thousands of followers and retweets for Mr. Moreno’s campaign accounts during last year’s elections.
The incentives to do this are high: not only can these purchased followers act on the behalf of the purchaser, media accounts regularly highlight the number of friends or followers a user has. These counts are one of the important social markers of status online. If you are not actively trying to boost these counts by multiple means, you are falling behind.
If so many public figures then have purchased followers, then will we see an authenticity backlash? Imagine a scenario where Twitter or LinkedIn offers a special badge that all of your friends and followers are authentic people. Or, public profiles will include an estimate of how many followers are actual users. Then, it is not only about how many followers you have but rather how many are “real” people. The irony may be that even if you have “real” followers, the sort of interactions you have with them in the online realm can be quite different than offline interactions.
Would the public care to have such metrics? News of paid followers has been available for years. (For example, see earlier posts here and here.) Would they act differently toward certain users or profiles if they knew where they came from? In a world full of paid or compensated online reviews, fake followers, and who knows what else (targeted Facebook ads? Google search results just for you?), perhaps we are already past the point of no return.