New York AG Takes Down Alleged Fake Influencer Firm
When someone mentions “bots,” a sinister chill enters the air. After all, we’re talking about mindless online automatons controlled by a mastermind in the Kremlin, a secret government facility or some out-of-shape sociopath in a suburban basement somewhere. They’ve been used for all sorts of nefarious purposes: to tilt an election, to scrape away sensitive information to take down company communications, etc. Creepy.
Then we start talking about sockpuppets, and the whole atmosphere seems somehow sillier. The slang “sockpuppet” doesn’t invoke mindless implacable destruction; it makes you think about goofy puppets made out of socks, which is kind of fun and not really threatening in the main. Sockpuppets are actually real people posing as someone else online, which is less creepy and more, well, sad.
But down amidst the Hadean flames of the internet influence economy, bots and sockpuppets are executors of the same cutthroat mentality: popularity at any cost.
Likes, views, shares, high-star reviews and endorsements, sincere or not ‒ real or not ‒ add up to revenue. So it’s no surprise that a company like Devumi LLC was incorporated ‒ a firm, New York Attorney General Letitia James charged, that sold the energies of bots and sockpuppet accounts to help customers boost their profiles and those of their featured products. The company allegedly pulled in millions between 2015 and 2017, the period covered by a recently concluded probe conducted by James’ office. The Florida attorney general also brought a case against the firm.
For a few thousand dollars, Devumi clients could gather, on a client’s behalf, an army of half a million Twitter followers and likes to whip up support. The company also sold YouTube followers and influencer endorsements. The content of any of these products could be tailored to the client’s preference.
In the wake of a New York Times article last year that revealed the behavior AGs would go on to investigate, Devumi and all its various subsidiaries folded and ceased operation. Final settlements were inked with New York and Florida at the end of January.
Through the New York settlement, Devumi agreed to refrain from the activity uncovered by the probe, and to fork over $50,000 to pay for it. “With this settlement,” AG James declared in a statement, “We are sending a clear message that anyone profiting off of deception and impersonation is breaking the law and will be held accountable.” Florida also obtained $50,000 and a permanent ban on deceptive activities on social media.
The use of bots and sockpuppets on social media violates the Federal Trade Commission’s Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising, which of course reflects the prohibition on unfair and deceptive practices in commerce under Section 5 of the FTC Act and in state unfair and deceptive practices acts. While the FTC has been very active in policing social media influencing, it is now clear that state AGs are joining the party.