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Having a large following on Twitter can mean big business. And as anyone who is active on social media probably knows, it’s all-too-easy to buy fake followers in an effort to appear more influential. What you might not realize, however, is that these fake followers are often impersonating real people with stolen personal information—even, potentially, of you.
Recently, the New York Times published a shocking report about this exact phenomenon. The news organization exposed a company called Devumi. According to the article, Devumi is selling Twitter bots and fake followers to anyone who will pay, including social influencers and major celebrities. The report found that the company’s listed address isn’t real and the founder’s LinkedIn information is full of lies, meaning Devumi is as fake as the followers it sells.
Think of your social media accounts. There’s a high probability some of your followers may be fake, but worse, they could represent real people who don’t know their image and information has been stolen. These accounts are being sold to the highest bidder and used to promote shady content like porn and messages of hate.
This happened to Jessica Rychley, a teen from Minnesota. Someone stole her image, her name, and her personal details and then created a fake Twitter account. Now, “Jessica”—unbeknown to her—promotes goods, services, and retweets all sorts of questionable material, all to make money for companies and individuals who purchased followers off Devumi. Sadly, there are millions of others just like Jessica, many of whom don’t even realize that this is happening to them.
These days, Twitter, Facebook, and pretty much all other social media sites are struggling with issues like “fake news” and manipulation from political parties and other organizations. These “fake” profiles promote all of the “fake” posts. The social sites then see this engagement and their algorithms deem it essential content; thus we all see the posts more prominently on our feeds. Unfortunately, many take these fake posts as truth—because if it’s on the internet, it must be true, right? And so the flood of fake news gets spread further and further.
It was announced by Facebook that it is believed about 60 million accounts on its platform are fake, which is twice as many as was initially thought. And with the New York Times’ story, one thing remains clear: Our social identities are being stolen, and our privacy is being invaded. And this is something we should not take lightly.
Our privacy has been under an increasing level of threat for years now. The average person spends two hours per day on social media—equating to over five years of our life—and we’ve too often become nonchalant about the personal information we post, and who might be looking. When we go on vacation, we announce to our followers where we’ll be and when we’ll be back—effectively offering a free meal to any burglars. We share pictures of our kids, their birthdates, our exact locations. It’s little wonder our privacy is being exploited, and to some degree, we have ourselves to blame.
Social media sites should also be more proactive about making their privacy settings accessible and letting users know what they’re doing with the data they collect. Facebook, for its part, has vowed to make that a priority. And all social sites are claiming to be committed to fighting the ever-growing issue of social ‘bots’ spreading fake news.
What can you personally do to protect yourself? Well, you can start by checking the privacy settings on your accounts and be wary about what information you share. Additionally:
- Set up a “Google alert” with your name to keep tabs on whether your likeness is duplicated online.
- Search your name occasionally on Facebook and Twitter.
- Don’t reuse passwords and make sure the ones you do use are strong.
- Use a VPN like Hotspot Shield to mask your IP address and encrypt your data on free WiFi.
- Keep all your software updated including your operating system.
- Beware of cyber scams and phishing emails.
Regarding the Devumi case, there could be legal troubles ahead. Eric Schneiderman, the Attorney General of the state of New York, says that the state’s chief prosecutor will look closely at the company’s behavior, and if it’s discovered that Devumi was indeed using stolen identifications from real users, it would undoubtedly undermine the transparency that currently exists on the internet.
Just days ago, Schneiderman sent out a tweet of his own. In it, he said that deception and impersonation are illegal, and implied that those who can pay the most for these ‘bots’ can buy their way into influencing the masses. That, of course, has been happening for some time now. Just ask poor Jessica Rychley.