The MTV show Catfish opened many people's eyes to the fact that not everyone online is exactly who they seem. In an attempt to combat the widespread use of fake social media accounts, the New York state attorney general is now investigating a company a New York Times report revealed makes millions selling Twitter followers and retweets.
Devumi creates fake social media accounts that "celebrities, businesses and anyone who wants to appear more popular or exert influence online" can buy to hike up their number of followers, The New York Times reports. Some of Devumi's customers include Democratic congressional candidate Randy Bryce, Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno, Scandal actress Katie Lowes, and Jacobin Magazine. Aside from the dishonesty of buying a Twitter following, a Times investigation found that Devumi creates social media accounts impersonating real people.
A few states, including New York and California, have officially outlawed online impersonation, which is why Devumi now finds itself in hot water. "Impersonation and deception are illegal under New York law," New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman tweeted Saturday, announcing an investigation into Devumi "and its apparent sale of bots using stolen identities."
New York state can investigate Devumi because of a technicality — the company lists a New York City address on its website. A spokesperson for the owner of the building told The New York Times neither Devumi nor its parent company, Bytion, ever rented in the Seventh Avenue space. It's unclear where Devumi is actually operated, though the owner is from Florida.
Regardless, Schneiderman wants to determine whether or not Devumi broke New York state's law prohibiting the impersonation of others online while touting a New York address. Criminal impersonation in New York is a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine and one year in jail.
"The internet should be one of the greatest tools for democracy—but it’s increasingly being turned into an opaque, pay-to-play playground," Attorney General Schneiderman tweeted. "The growing prevalence of bots means that real voices are too often drowned out in our public conversation. Those who can pay the most for followers can buy their way to apparent influence."