New York prosecutor to investigate firm selling online followers

FILE PHOTO: New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman speaks during a news conference about fantasy sports companies FanDuel and DraftKings in New York March 21, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York’s chief prosecutor will investigate a company that, according to a New York Times article published on Saturday, sold millions of fake followers on social media accounts to celebrities and others wanting to goose their online presence.

Eric Schneiderman, the state’s attorney general, said the company, Devumi, would be undermining the internet’s use as a tool for transparency and democracy if, as the Times reported, it was selling so-called bots using identities stolen from real social media users.

“Impersonation and deception are illegal under New York law,” Schneiderman wrote on Twitter on Saturday. “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.”

Devumi advertises itself on its website as selling online followers for various social media platforms, including Pinterest and YouTube. It promises Twitter users they can buy up to 500,000 additional followers from the company, which describes itself as “committed to the goal of increasing your social media presence and credibility with guaranteed results.”

The company, which did not respond to questions on Saturday, told the Times it did not sell fake users or steal real people’s identities.

The Times reported that it bought followers from Devumi and said many of them were evidently fake. It interviewed some of the real social media users whose profile pictures and biographical details had apparently been stolen.

The Times said famous actors, television presenters and entrepreneurs were among those who bought Devumi followers.

Twitter is working to stop Devumi and similar companies, it said in a statement on Saturday. “The tactics used by Devumi on our platform and others as described by today’s NYT article violate our policies and are unacceptable to us,” the statement said.

Reporting by Jonathan Allen