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Social media in general, and Twitter in particular, is taking a huge hit after revelations that celebrities, politicians, athletes and influencers in all walks of life have boosted their social media following by buying fake Twitter followers. 

In a series of articles in late January, the New York Times revealed the results of a lengthy investigation into fake Twitter accounts and how those accounts are sold to legitimate Twitter users to increase their number of followers and therefore their influence to advertisers and sponsors.

The fake accounts are “Counterfeit coins in the booming economy of online influence, reaching into virtually any industry where a mass audience – or the illusion of it – can be monetized,” The Times reports.

Unmasking Social Media Fraud – The Investigation

Scrutinizing more than one thousand features to identify robot or “bot” accounts on Twitter, researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) wrote that “our estimates suggest that between 9% and 15% of active Twitter accounts are bots.”

The fake (Twitter) accounts are counterfeit coins in the booming economy of online influence.

The New York Times

With an estimated 330 million monthly and active users, that means between 30 and 50 million of these accounts are bots and the number could be even higher. The USC report goes on to say that complex bots could have shown up as humans in their model, “making even the 15% figure a conservative estimate.”

While USC’s researchers highlighted the benefits of some bots as “Perform[ing] useful functions, such as dissemination of news and publications,” it also pointed to the downside, saying, “There is a growing record of malicious applications of social bots. Some emulate human behavior to manufacture fake grassroots political support… [and] promote terrorist propaganda and recruitment.”

The New “Influence Economy”

So why do people bend and break the rules of social media sites and enlist fake followers?

The answer is status, which often times means money.

For some entertainers, athletes and entrepreneurs the number of people who follow, like or “friend” them means status in the virtual world and that often translates into real-world currency.

The number of followers may help determine who hires high profile people and how much they are paid for bookings or endorsements. It can even affect how potential customers evaluate their businesses or products.

Even for less famous but so-called “influencers,” followers can affect how much advertisers are willing to spend for their endorsements; that is the more people influencers reach, the more money they make.

An influencer with 100,000 followers might earn an average of $2,000 for a promotional tweet, while one with a million followers might earn $20,000, according to Captiv8, a company that connects influencers to brands.

For some entertainers, athletes and entrepreneurs the number of people who follow, like or “friend” them means status in the virtual world and that often translates into real-world currency.

(Source): New York Times

The Times investigation focused on Devumi, an up-to-now obscure American company which sells Twitter followers and retweets to celebrities, businesses and anyone who wants to appear more popular or exert influence online. According to the Times, Devumi stockpiled at least 3.5 million automated accounts, repeatedly sold each one many times over, and provided customers with more than 200 million Twitter followers.

The Rich and Famous with Fake Twitter Followers

Among those found to have fake Twitter followers from Devumi were actor John Leguizamo, computer billionaire Michael Dell, American football commentator and former player Ray Lewis and Kathy Ireland, the onetime swimsuit model who today runs a multi-million-dollar licensing empire. Akbar Gbajabiamila, the host of the show “American Ninja Warrior” and even a Twitter board member, Martha Lane Fox, had some Devumi accounts as well.

A Twitter spokeswoman says the company did not typically suspend users suspected of buying bots, partially because it is difficult for them to know who is responsible for any given purchase.

“We continue to fight hard to tackle any malicious automation on our platform as well as false or spam accounts,” spokeswoman Kristin Binns said, adding that it’s difficult to know whether the fake accounts cited by the Times violated the company’s policies against impersonation.

Ireland boasts more than one million Twitter followers and often uses the platform to promote companies – such as Wisconsin-based American Family Insurance – with whom she has endorsement deals.

As of January 2017, Ireland had only roughly 160,000 Twitter followers, but after an employee made several purchases from Devumi, her numbers jumped to more than a million. A spokeswoman said that the employee acted without Ireland’s authorization and had been suspended after the purchases were questioned.

We continue to fight hard to tackle any malicious automation on our platform as well as false or spam accounts.

– Twitter Spokeswoman

Just for fun, I ran a Twitter audit on President Donald Trump and it appears that only 51% of his followers are real, making almost half of them fake Twitter followers.

If you are ever curious how many followers are real on a particular profile, you can use the free tool Twitter Audit, just type in the Twitter handle in question and the results will populate so you can see exactly how many of their followers are real and fake.

I’ve personally seen many people in the social media industry with a very high percentage of fake Twitter followers, which means only one thing… they’ve bought them.

The Not So Rich and Famous

At the other end of the spectrum from the rich and famous are those obscure and unknown users who are victimized by this type of identity theft. Such was the case of a college student and aspiring filmmaker who set up his Twitter account while a high school sophomore. But before he even graduated, his Twitter details were copied onto a bot account.

The fake account remained dormant until last year when it suddenly began retweeting Devumi customers continuously. Among other things, the fake account promoted various pornographic accounts and a gambling website.

Puzzled as to why they’d take his identity, the 20-year-old college student didn’t realize that his unknown social identity has value in the influence economy – where his “profile” might be sold for 15 cents per customer. Multiply that by thousands of similar profiles and millions of customers and the profits add up.

And what about job-seekers, worried that a potential employer will come across a fake profile with their photo and links to questionable websites? Such was the case of a 40-year-old female engineer who said she was grateful potential employees didn’t come across a fake account that used her photo during the vetting of her social media accounts as part of the hiring process.

Fake Profiles and Malware

As if that form of identity theft isn’t bad enough, fake social media accounts can also be used by hackers to install Trojan malware onto the networks of target organizations, according to a recent article in CNET magazine.

Cybersecurity researchers at SecureWorks say a phishing campaign in 2017 targeted individuals in organizations predominantly in the Middle East and North Africa, along with some targets in the US. The emails’ general subjects included job offers and requests to reset passwords.

These lures contained shorted URLs, which – when opened – installed an open-source remote access Trojan which can infiltrate Windows, Linux, OSX and Android to give the hacker full access to the victim’s computer system.

The “Mia Ash” profile used to spread a virus had more than 500 LinkedIn Connections and even more on Facebook.

(Source): Secureworks

But when the scheme failed to obtain the expected results, the hackers tried again, this time utilizing a fake social media profile that had been interacting with some of the targets.

Named “Mia Ash,” the profile purported to be a young woman working as a photographer in London, however, the persona was completely fake and used the Instagram photos of a young Eastern European woman.

The fake profile had over 500 connections on LinkedIn and an even larger number on Facebook. The LinkedIn account had stolen a job description from a legitimate photographer in the U.S. and initially appeared to have connected with others in photography in order to look authentic.

The attack began with LinkedIn messages before moving to Facebook then eventually email. One particular exchange included a Microsoft Excel attachment and urged recipients to open it at work for it to “function properly.”

This survey contained macros which, once enabled, downloaded the PupyRAT Trojan onto the targeted system, giving the attackers access to the business network.

What Can Be Done to Combat Social Media Fraud?

The revelation of fake social media accounts has led some to call for tighter restrictions and more accountability from social media companies to ensure that real people are actually utilizing the services and reposting the comments of others.

Entrepreneur and tech investor Mark Cuban says it’s time for Twitter to require that accounts be associated with a real person and for Facebook to tighten its requirements.

Unmasking Fake Twitter Followers, Social Media Fraud & Fake Profiles

“I do think Twitter would benefit from requiring every account(s) being tied back to an individual. If someone wants to run a bot account, great, but identify a person behind it.”

–  Mark Cuban

“I don’t think your user handle or profile has to reflect your actual name or picture,” Cuban tweeted. “I do think Twitter would benefit from requiring every account(s) being tied back to an individual. If someone wants to run a bot account, great, but identify a person behind it.”

Cuban told the Times in a follow-up email that automated accounts, or bots, and impersonation on Twitter had made him “less enthusiastic about using the platform.”

In the legal realm, investigations have begun in the United States on both the federal and state levels. Two U.S. Senators have asked the nation’s Federal Trade Commission to begin an investigation into the “deceptive and unfair marketing practices” of Devumi and similar companies.

Meanwhile, Florida’s Attorney General, Pam Bondi has also begun an investigation into Devumi, joining New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman who announced that he would begin reviewing whether the company had violated state laws against impersonation and commercial deception.

“Impersonation and deception are illegal under New York law,” Schneiderman wrote on Twitter. “We’re opening an investigation into Devumi and its apparent sale of bots using stolen identities.”

What’s the Impact for Social Media & Digital Marketers?

Buying fake profiles to boost your influence ultimately hurts your credibility and will cost you business if you are perceived as less than trustworthy.

Once trust is broken, it’s almost impossible to earn back. And remember, the biggest payoff for ethical marketing, or as I like to call it, trust-based marketing, is people do business with those they know, like and trust.

– Melonie Dodaro

I’ve personally seen many people in the social media industry with a very high percentage of fake Twitter followers, which means only one thing… they’ve bought them. Remember you can do a quick search using Twitter Audit to double check anyone you are curious about.

Integrity is what you do when no one is watching, so ask yourself, “Am I a person of integrity that my business colleagues can trust and safely refer others too? Or am I looking for a short-cut to success and a way to manipulate the market to my advantage?” Eventually, the web of deceit unravels and businesses and relationships are ruined. Ask yourself today, “Is it worth the risk?”

Social media fraud is a problem and one of the ways that you can help combat that problem is to report post, profiles or anything else that seems suspicious to the social media platform you are seeing it on.

Please share any stories you have related to social media fraud, fake Twitter followers and fake profiles with us in the comments, your story could help many others.

The post Unmasking Fake Twitter Followers, Social Media Fraud & Fake Profiles appeared first on Top Dog Social Media.

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