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New York attorney general launches investigation into bot factory after Times exposé

Louise Linton, Randy Bryce, and Clay Aiken all bought fake Twitter followers from a company called Devumi.

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Clay Aiken.
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Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

American Idol contestant Clay Aiken got more than 5,000 retweets on a 2015 customer complaint about Volvo. Did that many people just really feel for the former reality TV star and congressional candidate’s gripes about picking up his new car? No. He paid for the social media reach — and he’s not the only one.

On Saturday, the New York Times published a lengthy report on the business of buying and selling fake followers and bots on social media. The report focuses on an obscure American company named Devumi, which according to the Times has made millions of dollars by buying and selling made up accounts online — namely, Twitter. The report has already sparked the interest of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who has said he’s opening an investigation.

Devumi, which claims to be based in Manhattan but is in actually run by a 27-year-old out of West Palm Beach, Florida, sells Twitter followers and retweets to celebrities, businesses, and anyone seeking to appear more popular or influential online. It has at least 3.5 million automated accounts, which it sells over and over again, and has provided customers with more than 200 million Twitter followers. Some of the accounts are copycats of real accounts; others are straight-up fakes.

And Devumi’s services are quite popular. The Times provides a laundry list of public figures who have bought follows from Devumi, including Randy Bryce, who is challenging House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) for his seat in Wisconsin; Louise Linton, wife of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; Kathy Ireland, former model and licensing entrepreneur; Hilary Rosen, a CNN contributor; and Martha Lane Fox, a Twitter board member.

For Aiken’s part, he used the service to get more retweets of his complaint about getting his new Volvo. (After publication, Bryce’s campaign reached out to clarify that Bryce’s followers were bought in 2015, before he launched his House campaign.)

It is no secret that Twitter, Facebook, Google, and other platforms are prone to fake accounts. Facebook has estimated that it has up to 60 million automated accounts, and one study found that up to 15 percent of Twitter accounts are bots. Social media is a major plank in the probes into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. And yet it’s not clear what the legal guardrails are, or what mechanisms, if any, are put in place. Per the Times:

Despite rising criticism of social media companies and growing scrutiny by elected officials, the trade in fake followers has remained largely opaque. While Twitter and other platforms prohibit buying followers, Devumi and dozens of other sites openly sell them. And social media companies, whose market value is closely tied to the number of people using their services, make their own rules about detecting and eliminating fake accounts.

“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,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman tweeted on Saturday, soon after the Times report was released. “The internet should be one of the greatest tools for democracy—but it’s increasingly being turned into an opaque, pay-to-play playground.”

There’s a lot that’s wild about the Devumi story, including just how widespread — and easy — it is to pull this off

Part of what comes across in the Times’s reporting is just how easy it is for Devumi to work. Devumi buys fake accounts from a variety of “bot makers” all over the world that make up fake accounts, many of which are copies of real accounts that are just slightly altered or inactive accounts that have been taken over. It then markets those accounts to potential customers looking to increase their social media reach for as little as a penny per account.

The first accounts it delivers are high-quality accounts, but after, it becomes extra obvious they’re fake. “The high-quality bots are usually delivered to customers first,” the Times report said, “followed by millions of cheaper, low-quality bots, like sawdust mixed in with grated Parmesan.”

Devumi’s founder, German Calas, told the Times his company does not sell fake followers and has no knowledge of stolen accounts. In an online résumé uncovered by the Times, Calas also claims to have graduated from Princeton University at about the age of 10, so, you know, take it with a grain of salt.

Devumi’s more than 200,000 customers don’t subscribe to a particular political ideology or come from a specific background. They’re all seeking the same thing: attention.