Fake Social Followers Yield Real Legal Concerns

Advertising Law

Lawmakers asked for an inquiry into a company that allegedly sells fake social media followers after news broke that celebrities and public figures were making purchases to bulk up their followings.

Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wrote to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Acting Chair Maureen K. Ohlhausen after reading a New York Times investigation into Devumi, an American company that sells social media actions.

According to the Times story, for any clients willing to pay, the company offers “a smorgasbord of social media influence”—from followers to retweets and likes on Twitter; to views, subscribers, likes and shares on YouTube; and even to followers and endorsements on LinkedIn. Devumi uses bots to create fake social media accounts or engages in social media identity theft, the Times claimed.

“Devumi’s fraudulent practices are likely linked to widespread consumer harms,” Sens. Moran and Blumenthal wrote. “The inflated number of followers, retweets, and the like enabled by Devumi’s services have the effect of distorting the online marketplace and creating a false sense of celebrity, credibility, or importance in people, companies, or institutions that may not deserve it.”

If the allegations in the news story are true, Devumi has engaged in false advertising, the legislators added, by touting its services as “100% Real Views from Real People.” In reality, the Times said, the company operates from a stock of at least 3.5 million automated accounts, at least 55,000 of which use the names, profile pictures, hometowns and other personal details of real Twitter users, including minors.

“This company seems engaged in unfair or deceptive practices, and we urge you to use all the tools at your disposal to take immediate action to investigate this company, along with any similar services, and shut down any fraudulent practices they are engaged in,” according to the letter from the lawmakers.

When asked for a comment on the letter, the FTC issued a statement that it “take[s] requests from Congress seriously, and [is] reviewing this specific request.”

The lawmakers were not alone in their concern. New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced a closer look by his office into the Times allegations. “Impersonation and deception are illegal under New York law,” he tweeted. “We’re opening an investigation into Devumi and its apparent sale of bots using stolen identities.”

To read the letter from the lawmakers, click here.

Why it matters: The Times report and subsequent government actions should give advertisers pause about equating the number of followers with the ability to influence. Companies often look to celebrities and social media influencers with large followers to market their products or services. But based on the allegations against Devumi, advertisers may want to engage in some due diligence.



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