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Manufacturing Influence, by Hyun-Woo Kang

Manufacturing Influence, by Hyun-Woo Kang

On January 27, 2018, The New York Times reported its investigatory findings on Devumi, a company selling fake twitter follower and retweets some of which are based on profiles of real people.[1]  Amassing social media followers has become a commodity.  The more followers or retweets, the more influence an individual is purported to have.  In turn, companies pay “influencers” to advertise their products or services to their followers. “Infuencers” have made access to consumers a monetized commodity, similar to the way television networks commoditized access to TV viewers for advertisers.

Devumi artificially inflates followers or retweets by using fake accounts to create a facade of social media influence.  This practice is particularly troubling because they use photos and profiles of real people without their consent to create these fake accounts.  As a result of the article, the New York Attorney General has opened an investigation into Devumi.  In addition to potential fraud and privacy issues, Devumi’s service endangers the open and democratic features of the Internet, such as the free exchange of ideas.

The Internet has become a place to connect and voice public opinion.  For example, the Women’s March that took place on January 21, 2017 was able to organize a globally concerted march by using Internet based platforms.  Movements have also used twitter hashtags have to raise awareness and connect similarly situated people.  For instance, people used the hashtag “MeToo” to voice personal stories of sexual harassment, bring to light the rampant sexual harassment and gender inequality.  Another example of using the Internet to raise awareness has been the ALS bucket challenge.  The ALS ice bucket challenge encouraged individuals to video recorded themselves dousing themselves with ice water and nominated others to do the same to raise awareness and donate to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis related charities.  The bucket challenged helped raise $115 million, the majority of which was given by new donors.  The Internet has become a powerful conduit for uniting and galvanizing social movements.

Consumers and companies’ relationships have also evolved to be more interactive, which has pushed corporations to be more socially conscious. Unsatisfied customers post their experience for all to see and the company reacts quickly in order to maintain their brand.  Consumers of a Star Wars video game were incensed by the game producer EA Game’s decision to include in-game purchases, where players were required to pay fees to obtain additional features not included in the game they had already purchased.  The frustrated consumer banded together online to boycott the game and as a result caused EA’s stock price to drop precipitously.  More recently, after consumers expressed outrage over companies giving discounts to NRA members, many companies such as Delta Airlines discontinued the practice.  The Internet enables voices to unify towards common goals.

In light of the Internet’s influence on our society, Devumi’s practices are particularly troubling because their services can undermine or artificially replicate outrage at the whim of a sole financial benefactor.  In other words, influence on the Internet can be bought to mimic democracy.  Both consumers and corporations are free to hire artificial mercenaries to wage public relations warfare over the Internet.  For instance, The New York Times article notes an instance where former American Idol contestant Clay Akin used Devumi to retweet his Volvo complaint 50,000 times.  Other instances include social media influencers paying for followers to increase their earnings from brands.

Until Internet platforms and legislators adapt to new technological realities, corporations that utilize online branding and advertising should more cognizant of online practices.  Furthermore, it raises questions of how corporations should react to online criticism.  Should there be a quantifiable threshold before taking action?  If a criticism originates with a fake account, does it make it illegitimate?

For consumers, their voices could be diluted by fake accounts.  The voices already on the Internet are vast.  The inclusion of these fake accounts further muddies the cacophony of voices.  On the other hand, those with financial means can create outrage geared towards their own personal interests.  Unless Internet service providers or legislators properly address the problem of fake accounts, the Internet’s is at risk of mutating from an open democratic forum to a pay-to-play arena where only those with financial means are heard.

 

 

 

[1] Nicholas Confessore, Bagriel J.X. Dance, et al., The Follower Factory, The New York Times, (Jan. 27, 2018) https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/01/27/technology/social-media-bots.html.