Scores of celebrities, political figures and entrepreneurs are using an online service that sells fake Twitter followers to bolster social media accounts, according to a recent investigation published by The New York Times. Among those found to have used the service are four NYU Tisch School of the Arts alumni.
The Florida-based company, Devumi, sells amplification bots programmed to promote their clients’ social media presences by following, retweeting and liking their tweets. The fake profiles are constructed using the names, photos, bios, hometowns and other personal details of real Twitter users.
The NYU Tisch alumni who used Devumi’s services included “Scandal” actress Katie Lowes; comedian, filmmaker and director John Leguizamo; “The Wire” actress Deirdre Lovejoy and Andrew McCarthy, an American actor known for his roles in 1980s films, such as “Pretty in Pink.” According to CNBC, as many as 48 million Twitter accounts may be automated bots. That’s about nine to 15 percent of all Twitter accounts.
Although there are no explicit laws against the trade Devumi engages in, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman opened an investigation into the company last Saturday, Jan. 27, citing concerns over fraud. Devumi claims on its website to be based in New York City.
“Impersonation and deception are illegal under New York [state] law,” Schneiderman wrote on Twitter in response to the NYT expose. “We’re opening an investigation into Devumi and its apparent sale of bots using stolen identities.”
Impersonation and deception are illegal under New York law. We’re opening an investigation into Devumi and its apparent sale of bots using stolen identities. https://t.co/uvxGOp7soQ
— Eric Schneiderman (@AGSchneiderman) January 27, 2018
Devumi’s founder German Calas has denied allegations that his company sold fake followers, has made over $2 million as of November 2017, providing over 200 million Twitter active followers to its customers according to the NYT investigation.
The severity with which the act of buying fake Twitter followers is being treated may come as a surprise to Devumi’s users and non-users alike, as many may consider it a victimless crime.
“Everyone does it,” NYU Tisch graduate and actress Deirdre Lovejoy said in an interview with the NYT.
The four NYU alumni did not respond to requests for comment on their use of Devumi.
However, Twitter is a platform for people with a wide array of views. The number of followers a Twitter user attracts is often seen as a barometer for the popularity of their opinions.
Justin Cappos, a professor of Computer Science at the Tandon School of Engineering who studies cybersecurity, sees the danger in the possibility of Twitter users with fringe views buying a high number of Twitter followers.
“It makes it possible for people with an agenda to push specific messages and make them seem more mainstream,” Cappos said. Cappos argues that seeing a large number of retweets or followers can have a psychological effect on the way their message is perceived by the public.
According to the NYT investigation, Devumi users include Millie Weaver, a reporter at InfoWars; Jacobin Magazine, a New-York-based socialist publication and China Xinhua News, a Chinese government-run press agency.
And it’s not just users with fringe views who buy Twitter followers on Devumi. Hilary Rosen, a Democratic political strategist and CNN commentator bought over half a million fake Twitter followers from Devumi, making more than a dozen purchases of followers over the span of two years, according to the NYT investigation.
Even those famous for other pursuits may use their Twitter accounts to promote their political views. NYU dropout and Devumi user John Leguizamo frequently expresses his political views against Donald Trump on Twitter with Tweets like this: “Crazy trump is destroying our great country! One department and office and one amendment at a time!”
Crazy trump is destroying our great country! One department and office and one amendment at a time! https://t.co/Nmim7Fbgzk
— John Leguizamo (@JohnLeguizamo) February 1, 2018
Fareeha Mahmood, a CAS freshman studying economics, said she saw reason to tolerate people using Devumi.
“If their intention is to … advance a political cause that will help other people then I think it’s okay,” Mahmood said before quickly qualifying her statement with a pointed question. “Who’s to judge whose intention is good and whose intention is bad? It’s really messy.”
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, February 5th print edition.
Email Sunanda Gaskins at [email protected]