A person’s voice is a commodity, so in an era where one’s voice is more amplified by their popularity than ever before, even the perception of celebrity is a potential industry waiting to be tapped. With companies transitioning from television advertisements and billboards to personalized marketing and social media influencers, there is money to be made for the service of drumming up views, likes, retweets, and followers — even when they are fake.
The word “bot,” which refers to a software application that runs automated tasks based on a script, has become ubiquitous in the Western vocabulary for the simple fact that they are everywhere online. There are three types that exist on social media platforms such as Twitter: scheduled bots post timed messages (e.g. the Big Ben bot posts every hour), watcher bots monitor and retweet accounts with news updates, like geological events, and amplification bots follow and retweet clients who pay for them. The latter is a point of contention. While we tend to think of amplification bots as existing primarily in the political sphere (e.g. making popular accounts that tout a certain political opinion), individuals and businesses have been utilizing them since at least 2013 to exert influence on social media for marketing purposes. Simply put, higher popularity means more money. Investors and businesses frequently look at social media engagement statistics when making financial decisions; these metrics can mean the difference between a show being picked up, an individual being hired, or an investment being made. And when money is at stake, people will buy anything to boost their numbers.
A 2017 study placed the number of Twitter accounts that weren’t tied to real people at 29 to 48 million; at the time, this accounted for 9 to 15% of all the accounts on the platform. Companies like Florida-based Devumi advertise the sale of Twitter retweets and followers to its client base of over 200,000 users. Thousands of these automated accounts use the personal details of real Twitter users in order to appear genuine, constituting social identity theft on a massive scale. Devumi purchases wholesale from anonymous bot-makers high-quality accounts with stolen profile photos and identifying information, then sells to clients for around one cent per account. These bots retweet in a myriad of languages and on a wide array of topics, and they follow far more people than the average Twitter user. The founder of Devumi and its parent company Bytion, German Calas, denies any allegation that his company creates or sells bot accounts. However, he has also in the past claimed to have degrees from Princeton and MIT, neither of which he ever attended; these and other claims about his personal and professional accomplishments do not bolster his reliability.
An analysis of the 55,000, at minimum, bot accounts that use the personal details of real people, including minors, found victims of this identity theft in all fifty US states. Early this year investigations were launched into Devumi by the New York and Florida attorneys general, and the Federal Trade Commission was urged to investigate the company for unfair and/or fraudulent business practices. However, the manufacture of these accounts is a legal grey area in that their production is not explicitly illegal, and they are sold openly despite rules on individual social media platforms against their creation.
Hundreds of high-profile celebrities and political figures purchased from Devumi, including a Twitter board member, the wife of the American Treasury Secretary, and a famous former model and businesswoman; the list includes actors, musicians, porn stars, athletes, entrepreneurs, political figures, and more. If even the most famous in society feel they have to supplement their popularity, it speaks to the obsession people have with celebrity and influence — one that extends beyond the traditional need for widespread admiration into the realm of monetary payment for the appearance of fame.
A few days after a New York Times exposé of these accounts, Twitter deleted over a million accounts; this July, it purged tens of millions of fake and inactive users from its platform, reducing the number of users on the site by about six percent. Celebrities like Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, and former president Barack Obama lost between two and three percent of their followers — @Twitter lost over twelve percent. The service is getting increasingly more vigilant at detecting and eliminating fake accounts, which is a sure sign of progress. But it’s vital to remember the consequences of not taking this problem seriously to begin with.
Last year Facebook disclosed that its own count of fraudulent accounts could be as high as 60 million. It’s not difficult to imagine how a user base of this size could result in the swaying of economic and political debates. Amplification bots and their interactions on social media are credited, at least in part, with the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election; it was an information attack on a less visible front, using Facebook and Twitter as tools of deception and propaganda, experimental because of the massive scale of the undertaking. While the prospect of this seems more sinister than the effects of bots in the domains of marketing and business, it’s worth an evaluation of the industry surrounding celebrity and influence.
Ninety-four percent of businesses and entrepreneurs who have used influencer marketing believe it to be effective; the returns on investment are tenfold compared to traditional methods of marketing. A higher follower count or number of retweets is something people take notice of; in the realm of celebrity, it makes the person appear more attractive to investors looking to advertise a product, while in the political world it tends to make people appear more credible or reflective of the popular opinion. Twitter and Facebook both use these metrics in deciding which posts and tweets to recommend, and YouTube does likewise based on view count. The things we consume on the internet are a direct consequence of what a platform believes we want to see; if something seems popular, it must mean more people want to see it. It’s not just businesses that are being duped to sponsor influencers and celebrities who aren’t as famous as they may seem — it’s us.
Individual citizens of the digital world are guided to videos, articles, and information. We assume content is recommended because it reflects the view that they are of quality and important, but the ability to pay for popularity negates this assumption. It’s shockingly easy to be misled in this context.
If a person’s voice is a commodity, then people themselves are currency. And if we know anything about the nature of standardized currency, it’s that there are always people trying to make a convincing counterfeit.