The real Jessica Rychly is a Minnesota teenager with a broad smile and wavy hair. She likes reading and the rapper Post Malone. When she goes on Facebook or Twitter, she sometimes muses about being bored or trades jokes with friends. Occasionally, like many teenagers, she posts a duck-face selfie.
But on Twitter, there is a version of Jessica that none of her friends or family would recognize. While the two Jessicas share a name, photograph and whimsical bio — “I have issues” — the other Jessica promoted accounts hawking Canadian real estate investments, cryptocurrency and a radio station in Ghana. The fake Jessica followed or retweeted accounts using Arabic and Indonesian, languages the real Jessica does not speak. While she was a 17-year-old high school senior, her fake counterpart frequently promoted graphic pornography, retweeting accounts called Squirtamania and Porno Dan.
All these accounts belong to customers of an obscure U.S. company named Devumi that has collected millions of dollars in a shadowy global marketplace for social media fraud. Devumi sells Twitter followers and retweets to celebrities, businesses and anyone who wants to appear more popular or exert influence online. Drawing on an estimated stock of at least 3.5 million automated accounts, each sold many times over, the company has provided customers with more than 200 million Twitter followers, a New York Times investigation found.
The accounts that most resemble real people, like Rychly, reveal a kind of large-scale social identity theft. At least 55,000 of the accounts use the names, profile pictures, hometowns and other personal details of real Twitter users, including minors, according to a Times data analysis.
“I don’t want my picture connected to the account, nor my name,” Rychly, now 19, said. “I can’t believe that someone would even pay for it. It is just horrible.”
These 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. Fake accounts, deployed by governments, criminals and entrepreneurs, now infest social media networks. By some calculations, as many as 48 million of Twitter’s reported active users — nearly 15 percent — are automated accounts designed to simulate real people, though the company claims that number is far lower.
In November, Facebook disclosed to investors that it had at least twice as many fake users as it previously estimated, indicating that up to 60 million automated accounts may roam the world’s largest social media platform. These fake accounts, known as bots, can help sway advertising audiences and reshape political debates. They can defraud businesses and ruin reputations. Yet their creation and sale fall into a legal gray zone.
“The continued viability of fraudulent accounts and interactions on social media platforms — and the professionalization of these fraudulent services — is an indication that there’s still much work to do,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has been investigating the spread of fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.
Despite rising criticism of social media companies and growing scrutiny by elected officials, the trade in fake followers has remained largely opaque. While Twitter and other platforms prohibit buying followers, Devumi and dozens of other sites openly sell them. And social media companies, whose market value is closely tied to the number of people using their services, make their own rules about detecting and eliminating fake accounts.
Devumi’s founder, German Calas, denied that his company sold fake followers and said he knew nothing about social identities stolen from real users. “The allegations are false, and we do not have knowledge of any such activity,” Calas said in an email exchange in November.
The Times reviewed business and court records showing that Devumi has more than 200,000 customers, including reality television stars, professional athletes, comedians, TED speakers, pastors and models. In most cases, the records show, they purchased their own followers. In others, their employees, agents, public relations companies, family members or friends did the buying. For just pennies each — sometimes even less — Devumi offers Twitter followers views on YouTube; plays on SoundCloud, the music-hosting site; and endorsements on LinkedIn, the professional-networking site.
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. At a time when Facebook, Twitter and Google are grappling with an epidemic of political manipulation and fake news, Devumi’s fake followers also serve as phantom foot soldiers in political battles online. Devumi’s customers include both avid supporters and fervent critics of President Donald Trump, and both liberal cable pundits and a reporter at the “alt-right” bastion Breitbart. Randy Bryce, an ironworker seeking to unseat Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., bought Devumi followers when he was a blogger and labor activist, as did Louise Linton, the wife of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, when she was trying to gain traction as an actress.
Devumi’s products serve politicians and governments overseas, too. An editor at China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, paid Devumi for hundreds of thousands of followers and retweets on Twitter, which the country’s government has banned but sees as a forum for issuing propaganda abroad. An adviser to Ecuador’s president, Lenín Moreno, bought tens of thousands of followers and retweets for Moreno’s campaign accounts during last year’s elections.
Kristin Binns, a Twitter spokeswoman, said the company did not typically suspend users suspected of buying bots, in part because it is difficult for the business to know who is responsible for any given purchase. Twitter would not say whether a sample of fake accounts provided by The Times — each based on a real user — violated the company’s policies against impersonation.
“We continue to fight hard to tackle any malicious automation on our platform as well as false or spam accounts,” Binns said. Unlike some social media companies, Twitter does not require accounts to be associated with a real person. It also permits more automated access to its platform than other companies, making it easier to set up and control large numbers of accounts.
“Social media is a virtual world that is filled with half bots, half real people,” said Rami Essaid, founder of Distil Networks, a cybersecurity company that specializes in eradicating bot networks. “You can’t take any tweet at face value. And not everything is what it seems.”
Including, it turns out, Devumi itself.
The Influence Economy
Last year, 3 billion people logged on to social media networks like Facebook, WhatsApp and China’s Sina Weibo. The world’s collective yearning for connection has not only reshaped the Fortune 500 and upended the advertising industry but also created a new status marker: the number of people who follow, like or “friend” you. For some entertainers and entrepreneurs, this virtual status is a real-world currency. Follower counts on social networks help determine who will hire them, how much they are paid for bookings or endorsements, even how potential customers evaluate their businesses or products.
High follower counts are also critical for 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 $2,000 for a promotional tweet, while an influencer with 1 million followers might earn $20,000. Genuine fame often translates into genuine social media influence, as fans follow and like their favorite movie stars, celebrity chefs and models. But shortcuts are also available: On sites like Social Envy and DIYLikes.com, it takes little more than a credit-card number to buy a huge following on almost any social media platform. Most of these sites offer what they describe as “active” or “organic” followers, never quite stating whether real people are behind them. Once purchased, the followers can be a powerful tool.
“You see a higher follower count, or a higher retweet count, and you assume this person is important, or this tweet was well received,” said Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz, a company that makes search engine optimization software. “As a result, you might be more likely to amplify it, to share it or to follow that person.”
Twitter and Facebook can be similarly influenced. “Social platforms are trying to recommend stuff — and they say, ‘Is the stuff we are recommending popular?’” said Julian Tempelsman, the co-founder of Smyte, a security firm that helps companies combat online abuse, bots and fraud. “Follower counts are one of the factors social media platforms use.”
Search on Google for how to buy more followers, and Devumi often turns up among the first results. Visitors are greeted by a polished website listing a Manhattan address, displaying testimonials from customers and a money-back guarantee. Best of all, Devumi claims, the company’s products are blessed by the platform for which they are selling followers. “We only use promotion techniques that are Twitter approved so your account is never at risk of getting suspended or penalized,” Devumi’s website promises.
To better understand Devumi’s business, we became a customer. In April, The Times set up a test account on Twitter and paid Devumi $225 for 25,000 followers, or about a penny each. As advertised, the first 10,000 or so looked like real people. They had pictures and full names, hometowns and often authentic-seeming biographies. One account looked like that of Rychly, the young Minnesota woman.
But on closer inspection, some of the details seemed off. The account names had extra letters or underscores, or easy-to-miss substitutions, like a lowercase “L” in place of an uppercase “I.”
The next 15,000 followers from Devumi were more obviously suspect: no profile pictures, and jumbles of letters, numbers and word fragments instead of names.
In August, a Times reporter emailed Calas, asking if he would answer questions about Devumi. Calas did not respond. Twitter forbids selling or buying followers or retweets, and Devumi promises customers absolute discretion. “Your info is always kept confidential,” the company’s website reads. “Our followers look like any other followers and are always delivered naturally. The only way anyone will know is if you tell them.”