Fake Friends and Fake Followers

In the Black Mirror production of Nosedive, based upon a short story by Charlie Brooker, a young woman named Lacie lives in a world in which social media approval metrics determine social, economic, and political opportunities. Every interaction is graded on a scale from one to five. Lacie’s approval rating is slipping, thus jeopardizing her participation in her friend’s wedding, and she is determined to improve her rating. She tries her best to be “nice,” and then enlists a ratings coach, but her efforts cannot stop her approval rating from its nosedive. Perhaps if Lacie had greater financial resources, she could have improved her ratings by paying people to like her on social media.

Would people really pay for the appearance of social approval? “Celebrities, athletes, pundits and politicians have millions of fake followers,” and they paid for them. Thus announces the New York Times in an exposé of the practice of paying for followers on social media.1 Perhaps even the President has paid for fake followers who are mere bots. Maybe bots are the only friends he has.

Although I am skeptical of the utility of Facebook and Twitter, I have come reluctantly to admit that these and other social media – even blogs – have some utility if properly used. The business of buying followers, however, is just plain sick.

Finally, Eric Schneiderman has announced an investigation into an issue of some importance. He is investigating Devumi, a company that he claims sells fake followers on social media. The company is alleged to have created over 55,000 bots based upon living people and their identifying features.2

Stealing identities and selling fake followers is deplorable, and Scheiderman’s crusade is a laudable exercise of prosecutorial discretion. But so is buying fake followers to lard up one’s social media metrics. The crime involves two separate criminal acts, and we should not lose sight of the fraudulent nature of the representations about inflated number of followers. It takes two parties to enter the contract to defraud the public. Devumi’s clients may well be in pari delicto.

Let us hope that when Schneiderman opens the books at Devumi, he will have the fortitude to tell us which “celebrities, athletes, pundits, and politicians” have been juking their stats. Schneiderman’s investigation has the promise of making Eliot Spitzer’s commercial transactions look like child’s play. Inquiring minds want to know who would buy a friend or a follower.

1 Nicholas Confessore, Gabriel J.X. Dance, Richard Harris, and Mark Hansen, “The Follower Factory: Everyone wants to be popular online. Some even pay for it. Inside social media’s black market,” N.Y. Times (Jan. 27, 2018).

2 Nicholas Confessore, “New York Attorney General to Investigate Firm That Sells Fake Followers,” N.Y. Times (Jan. 27, 2018).

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