Turns out that social media is far from the madding crowd that it’s cracked up to be. A study last year found that 48 million Twitter accounts and 60 may be bots run by computers, while Facebooks own disclosures pegged its number of phony accounts at a whopping 270 million .
Most of those fake accounts don’t happen by accident. Instead, they’re created by companies like Devumi, a social media follower factory recently featured in a New York Times expose on the social media black market. For under $400, users can instantly gain 50,000 followers on Twitter; for another $500, they can add 5000 followers on LinkedIn or 50,000 views on YouTube. Devumi’s appeal is so great that it’s used by movie stars, celebrity chefs and models to manufacture popularity to attract lucrative endorsements. More troublesome, many of these bot followers can be used to influence the political process.
What’s particularly insidious about follower factories is that many of them set up accounts using real identities of other users so that the fake profiles seem more realistic. The Times report discovered that Devumi created profiles with users’ pictures and names slightly modified by either a changed background or the addition of an extra letter. One Devumi account appropriated a Minnesota teen’s name and likeness, with a few superficial modifications. In the wake of the Times report, New York Attorney General, Eric Scheniderman announced that his office would open an investigation into Devumi and its apparent sale of bots using stolen identities, which potentially violate New York laws that make impersonation and deception illegal.
Although the NY Attorney General is investigating follower factories, and not those who purchase fake followers, lawyers who engage in the practice of procuring fake followers should be wary. Every jurisdiction’s ethics rules prohibit false and deceptive advertising – and buying followers to convey a more influential appearance falls into the category of deception in my book. Moreover, as the Times Report bears out, it’s not that difficult to identify those who purchased fake accounts. You can also check sites like Twitter Audit to determine whether a lawyer’s followers are real, or whether a legal marketing company that you might want to hire has real followers (here’s the Twitter Audit score for one well known legal marketer). In terms of auditing social media accounts, fake followers are a low-hanging fruit.
So lawyers – if you don’t know it already, be cautious about marketing companies that promise large numbers of followers for running your social media campaigns. Though you may draw attention to your profile and impress potential clients, you may also draw something else far less palatable: an AG investigation or an ethics complaint.