The 2018 Implosion of Fake Influencer Marketing

On Saturday, January 27, 2018, The New York Times published a bombshell investigative report titled The Follower Factory by Nicholas Confessore, Gabriel JX Dance, Richard Harris, and Mark Hansen.  It details the social media black market where bots impersonate real people to feed the vanity metrics of social media and influencer marketing.

This comprehensive investigative report focuses on a Florida company called Devumi that uses fraudulent tactics, including social media impersonation of minors, to sell fake likes and follows across all social media platforms. Customers include everyone from celebrities to business leaders – including PR, marketing, and even social media agencies. The best part? They names names. You’ll recognize many of them.

Although fake followers and fake likes have been an open secret on all social media platforms, the scope and depth of this report has immediate and lasting ramifications. Its a pivotal moment and a must-read.

It’s not just about Devumi. “Like Farms” and “Bot Farms” advertise openly and are active on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, and LinkedIn. See also “Faked: The Headquarters. The Followers. The Influence?” by Ed Winstead also published on 1/27/18.

The Follower Factory reveals in detail an issue that applies to anyone who has ever made an account on any social platform now or in the future. And, because most of us need to be connected for professional reasons, living off the social grid is not an option. In the past, social media was optional. Today, it’s essential to business, networking, and politics. Even educators use Twitter. So, the social media black market and “Bot Farms” is fraud and abuse that impacts us all.

These “Like Farms” advertise themselves as engagement services, and pretend to be a perfectly respectable method for businesses to “accelerate social media growth” with thousands of likes and follows. Devumi’s web site says,

Your Social Media Success Starts Right Here.
From Trending tweets, to viral videos. We make it happen.

Devumi sells fake likes, shares, commnets by impersonating real users including minors.

Devumi’s website reveals its overblown promises – a clear indication they are fraudulent. That’s no surprise. But the extent of it and the detailed research in the reporting is breathtaking. And the graphics are beyond.

Why do number-of-likes and follows even matter? Because so many in the general public believe a large number of likes and followers establishes credibility.

Clearly, that’s false. We can check that box once and for all.

It’s my hope The Follower Factory exposes the metric of likes and followers for the meaningless vanity metric that it is. Facebook practically ignores Page likes in its 2018 news feed algorithms for this very reason.

Now, real people, including minors, must deal with the fallout of fake accounts having impersonated them – often for years. Imagine job searching and a potential employer researches you on Twitter to find an account that appears to be you, and you’re liking adult entertainment sites and hundreds of unseemly or random things that do not at all represent who you are. That’s what these “Like Farms” sell.  Some would say this crosses over into identity theft territory. I’m sure social media impersonation feels like identity theft if it happens to you or your child. Expect follow-up stories on the pain this has caused real people.

To be clear, Twitter is a fantastic place to share information as are all social media platforms. I love Twitter! But we are in a time of flux where fake accounts and vanity metrics are feeding off each other and distoring reality. The diligent research and reporting by reporters like Nicholas Confessore, Gabriel JX Dance, Richard HarrisMark Hansen, and Ed Winstead are key in the battle for reality. Ironically, you can watch the research and collaboration partially play out on Twitter.  As NYTimes reporter Nick Confessore tweeted, “And we are only just beginning to grapple with it.”

Not a fan of the NYTimes? Don’t worry. This issue of exposing fraud will be taken up with great joy by every news agency of every persuasion. It’s just too obvious and important. It’s just fraud, and everyone not profiting from it hates it.

It’s not hard to be ethical on social media and avoid contributing to the social media black market. All you have to do is NOT buy into the fake follower game. And, seriously, it just comes down to common sense. Judge people and companies on social media by the quality of their output and not by how many followers they have. And, if you’re a business or professional using social media for marketing, don’t buy fake likes or fake followers. It is fraud, and it won’t build real engagement or lead to long-term conversions or success.  But it could be a nice PR disaster, if you’re into that sort of thing.

If you already bought fake likes, my advice would be to cancel your service and scrub your account or page from all the fake accounts. It’s labor intensive, but it can be done. Not sure it’s worth your time? Read the article and you’ll see that reporters named people and companies as having bought fake likes from Devumi partially by visiting known fake Devumi accounts and seeing other accounts that bot interacted with. It’s very simple and transparent once someone takes the time to look.

The New York Attorney General opened an investigation into Devumi on the same day The Follower Factory was published by the NYTimes. While Devumi is in Florida, they claim to be in New York City.

Of course, many in the article said, “We just wanted to see how it worked.” But others acknowledged it was wrong and said they regret buying fakes likes from Devumi. Many blamed an employee or a 3rd-party service, but seriously, how could they not have known?

Sadly, many were pressured by their bosses who obviously have little understanding of how social media works:

Other buyers said they had faced pressure from employers to generate social media followers. Marcus Holmlund, a young freelance writer, was at first thrilled when Wilhelmina, the international modeling agency, hired him to manage its social media efforts. But when Wilhelmina’s Twitter following didn’t grow fast enough, Mr. Holmlund said, a supervisor told him to buy followers or find another job. In 2015, despite misgivings, he began making monthly Devumi purchases out of his own pocket.

“I felt stuck with the threat of being fired, or worse, never working in fashion again,” said Mr. Holmlund, who left in late 2015. “Since then, I tell anyone and everyone who ever asks that it’s a total scam — it won’t boost their engagement.” (A Wilhelmina spokeswoman declined to comment.)

Scrub out the fake accounts and move forward because social media is not going away. This reckoning is good news for local businesses and real people who use social media to support in-person networking and community involvement.

Join our Facebook group DFW Social Media Marketing Training for more learning and sharing. Or, contact me about our Facebook Advertising Training Modules.

-Terri Magnotti