Obtaining a critical mass of followers on social media is how one influences thought, generates income, and mobilizes action. Generating mass followers is the goal of business, policy leaders, social entrepreneurs and, unfortunately, subversive actors.
The New York times article The Follower Factory, published on line on January, 27th 2018, described the methodology for achieving this critical mass of followers on social media. The process includes gaining followers who chose to follow, those who are captured as a followers unwittingly, and fake profiles generated just for this purpose. The creation and sale of lists of these real and fake profiles by social marketing companies has become big business, and the latest issue of concern for industry leaders who desire their platforms to be known as reliable sources, and policy makers looking to create legislation to protect the consumer/user on the internet.
The process of developing and selling lists of fake profiles surfaced during the 2016 election cycle with the over preponderance of fake news items infiltrating feeds across the country and around the globe. People were reporting stolen identities, the use of their accounts to distribute unauthorized information, posts from known deceased persons and untraceable contacts.
The NY Times article described the experience of Jessica.
“But on Twitter, there is a version of Jessica that none of her friends or family would recognize. While the two Jessicas share a name, photograph and whimsical bio — “I have issues” — 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 graphic pornography, retweeting accounts called Squirtamania and Porno Dan” (New York Times).
Devumi has been identified as one of the companies that earns millions of dollars selling fake accounts to those looking to boost their follower rankings and/or influence thought. The companies are also contracted by influencers, or prospective influencers, to create Bots that enables their list to follow that customer. Bots are fake accounts set up to run by code and need no human to manually follow and are the quickest way to develop multiple accounts at one time.
Facebook disclosed that “60 million automated accounts may roam the world’s largest social media platform” (New York Times).
Is the use of fake followers and Bots legal? Is the use of fake follower and Bots fraud? Is the use of someone’s profile without their permission identity theft? Can regulating the use of fake followers and Bots be found constitutional? As with much about the internet, policy and legislation has not yet caught up the web on these issues.
Former federal prosecutor in major fraud, Julie Werner-Simon (Boston University ’79), of P2W: Persuade 2 Win, explained that it has not been decided whether the purchasing of followers for a twitter feed constitutes fraud. Fraud requires an intent to deceive. There is no universal or objective expectation that followers and friends on Facebook expect truth. The act of bot creators of stealing identities is certainly a criminal offense under federal and state laws. However, manufacturing fake followers from real or fictional people is not yet recognized as criminal conduct. Who is objectively being deceived? Frankly does anyone have an expectation that followers are authentic when most people are more concerned with the volume of followers rather than who they really are?
The question remains: how are our internet and platform providers, and our legislators going to combat the results created by these fake accounts? How does one recognize when a bot is posting across feeds? How can we, the user, distinguish between real and fake followers, real and fake news? Who and how do we hold the perpetrators responsible?