Please brace yourself. According to a Saturday expose in the New York Times, some of your favourite social media influencers may not really be influencers at all.
John Leguizamo, one of the celebrities who allegedly buys social media followers. Photo: AP
Instead, they may be social media fakers.
As someone who had previously assumed celebrities adhere to a sort of Iron Law of Ethics, it rocks my worldview to learn everyone from John Leguizamo to Kathy Ireland and Twitter board member Martha Lane Fox have allegedly expanded their social media footprint through Devumi, one of many, many services offering to explode customers' follower counts with bots.
As many as 15 per cent of Twitter users may not be users at all, but unthinking robotic pawns in a sinister plot to boost Leguizamo's career, the Times writes:
The actor John Leguizamo has Devumi followers. So do Michael Dell, the computer billionaire, and Ray Lewis, the football commentator and former Ravens linebacker. Kathy Ireland, the onetime swimsuit model who today presides over a half-billion-dollar licensing empire, has hundreds of thousands of fake Devumi followers, as does Akbar Gbajabiamila, the host of the show "American Ninja Warrior."
Even a Twitter board member, Martha Lane Fox, has some.
According to the Times' report, Devumi and its ilk have also sold Twitter followers to numerous political campaigns and personalities on both sides of the aisle, as well as advisers to foreign governments and an editor at Chinese state news agency Xinhua.
While the Times identified some benign bots like those that post automated or scheduled messages, many of the fake accounts in question are apparently "amplification bots" designed for the sole purpose of fooling us common folk into believing the celebrities are more popular and influential online than they truly are.
Shocking. As the Times noted, these "amplification bots" may even be used for the purpose of monetisation:
High follower counts are also critical for so-called influencers, a budding market of amateur tastemakers and YouTube stars where advertisers now lavish billions of dollars a year on sponsorship deals. The more people influencers reach, the more money they make. According to data collected by Captiv8, a company that connects influencers to brands, an influencer with 100,000 followers might earn an average of $US2000 ($2466) for a promotional tweet, while an influencer with a million followers might earn $US20,000 ($24,662).
"You see a higher follower count, or a higher retweet count, and you assume this person is important, or this tweet was well received," Rand Fishkin, founder of SEO company Moz, told the Times. "As a result, you might be more likely to amplify it, to share it or to follow that person."
There's some ways to spot these Stepford Tweeters, per the Times, like if they're following thousands of people and have only a handful of followers themselves, or they happen to be retweeting tons of ads or posts in foreign languages. None of these warning signs would have ever occurred to me, a simple country tech blogger, but now that the homespun wool has been pulled from my eyes I may take the necessary protective measures to guard myself against being unduly influenced by @JohnLeguizamoFan420's views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Even darker is the possibility alluded to by the Times that these bots don't actually boost engagement and largely provide ephemeral results, and that buying large numbers of these bots may be a ... wait for it... scam:
The high-quality bots are usually delivered to customers first, followed by millions of cheaper, low-quality bots, like sawdust mixed in with grated Parmesan.
Devumi, according to one former employee, sourced bots from different bot makers depending on price, quality and reliability. On Peakerr, for example, 1,000 high-quality, English-language bots with photos costs a little more than a dollar. Devumi charges $US17 ($21) for the same quantity.
Defeating or at least culling the invasion of bots would only require "seemingly simple" solutions like extra steps during the registration process, but then we come to the core of this conspiracy: It goes all the way to the top! Per the Times, it seems Twitter may have a sort of "incentive" to allow bots to proliferate, because then Twitter itself may seem more powerful and influential than it really is.
Like the protagonist of an H.P. Lovecraft story, I have seen the perverse underbelly of our universe and will never be the same. All I know is that the celebrities have deeply wounded me, and it will be at least five minutes before I uncritically believe something I see online again.