A photo of a sign saying "Beware of Zombies"

A long time ago I wrote a post on the shadowy industry of selling fake followers on Twitter. At the time it was possible to buy thousands or even millions of Twitter followers, guaranteed within a few days following payment. I used a company called Devumi to test this process using a dummy Twitter account @not_zodiacmedia. There were many companies offering the same sort of service, but Devumi had the slickest looking site and were marginally cheaper than the competition so they won my business. At the time of the post Twitter’s IPO was in progress, and their IPO share price, and therefore valuation as a company, was driven strongly by their reported ‘Monthly Active Users’ (MAUs). By investigating and writing about the phenomenon of fake followers, I wanted to highlight that investors should take the MAUs figure with a pinch of salt.

Last week I received an email out of the blue from the Federal Trade Commission as follows:

Federal Trade Commission Logo

What You Should Know About Your Devumi Purchase

The Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s consumer protection agency, recently reached a settlement with a company called Devumi for deceptive social media influence practices. Devumi sold fake followers to help people and organizations gain a strong social media following. The people and companies who bought the fake followers did so to make it look like they had more “influence” on social media than they did.

According to Devumi’s records, you bought social media influence from Devumi, or one of the websites it operated:

  • Devumi.com
  • TwitterBoost.com
  • Buyview.com
  • Buyplays.co

You may have paid for social media influence like

  • Twitter followers
  • LinkedIn connections
  • YouTube views
  • SoundCloud plays

If you still have followers, connections, subscribers, views, or likes you bought from Devumi — or anyone else — you must delete them from your social media accounts immediately.

It’s illegal to pay for social media followers to increase your influence. Companies and individuals that break the law may face a lawsuit from the FTC. A court could order violators to stop the illegal behavior and pay a money judgment.

It’s taken 6 years but Devumi’s website confirms that US law has caught up with them, as it shows a message saying they have closed for business. It’s interesting that the email states “It’s illegal to pay for social media followers to increase your influence.” as that indicates that there are US laws relating to social media! The press release linked to in the FTC’s email makes for fascinating reading, in particular:

In the first case, Devumi, LLC (Devumi) and its owner and CEO, German Calas, Jr., have agreed to settle the FTC’s first-ever complaint challenging the sale of fake indicators of social media influence, which are important metrics that businesses and individuals use in making hiring, investing, purchasing, licensing, and viewing decisions.

And also:

In the second case, cosmetics firm Sunday Riley Modern Skincare, LLC (Sunday Riley Skincare) and its CEO, Sunday Riley, have agreed to settle an FTC complaint charging them with misleading consumers by posting fake reviews of the company’s products on a major retailer’s website, at the CEO’s direction, and by failing to disclose that the reviewers were company employees.

Looking at our original fake twitter account, which at one point had around 2000 followers, all fake and bought through Devumi, the followers count has reduced to 0. We can only assume this is Twitter themselves purging fake profiles. I was previously aware that a bonfire of the fakes had taken place through stories causing minor embarrassment for some celebrities including Martha Lane Fox, James Cracknell and Paul Hollywood.

Repeating the original Google search query from my old blog post for 'buy Twitter followers' shows many listings purporting to offer the same service as Devumi. Testing whether these deliver or not can be saved for another time. Anecdotally we have definitely seen a recent increase in ‘anti bot’ challenges when using Twitter, such as Google’s Recaptcha and email or phone number validation.

The second point in the FTC press release is more interesting as fake product reviews on e-commerce marketplaces have a much more direct commercial benefit compared to fake followers on social media platforms. The FTC press release relates to abuse on Sephora, a beauty products marketplace. The next question that forms in my head is whether the FTC will set their sights on policing the world’s biggest online marketplace - Amazon.

For several years now I have noticed a trend of product reviews on Amazon seeming increasingly bogus. I’m not alone in this. A quick Google shows there are easily findable services where you can buy fake Amazon reviews. Amazon themselves have previously taken steps to reduce the likelihood of fake reviews. Again, anecdotally, if you take the time to skim product reviews a lot are in pidgin English and often don’t say much. Dig further and look at a reviewer’s history and a pattern can emerge of similar vapid 5 star reviews.

A screenshot of a vapid product review on Amazon.

Real, meaningful reviews are one of the best and worst parts of Amazon depending on whether you’re a consumer in a hurry or a merchant whose product is rated 4 stars compared to a competitor’s 5. We believe it is in Amazon’s interest to turn some of its web services machine learning superpowers on itself and weed these puff pieces out. The question is will they, and equally will the FTC have the ambition to push Amazon to do so.

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