New York’s attorney general has declared it’s illegal to sell fake social media engagement in order to inflate one’s online influence, ruling against one “fake like” merchant in a landmark decision in the battle against bots.
New York Attorney General Letitia James announced the settlement with social media influence peddler Devumi LLC and its subsidiaries in a first-of-its-kind ruling barring the companies from engaging in the sale of fake social media engagement going forward. The settlement includes a $50,000 fine that owner German Calas Jr. has agreed to pay after pleading no contest to the charges.
“Bots and other fake accounts have been running rampant on social media platforms, often stealing real people’s identities to carry out fraud,” James said in a statement accompanying the decision. “As people and companies like Devumi continue to make a quick buck by lying to honest Americans, my office will continue to find and stop anyone who sells online deception. With this settlement, we are sending a clear message that anyone profiting off of deception and impersonation is breaking the law and will be held accountable.”
Devumi and its affiliates made $15 million selling fake followers, “likes,” views, and other social media engagement from 2015 to 2017, activity that was generated by a stable of 3.5 million bots and “sock puppets” – one person operating multiple accounts. Some of the fake accounts copied the identities of real people, including their photos, and may have deceived Devumi’s customers into believing they were buying engagement with actual humans, the decision said.
The company also sold endorsements from social media “influencers” without disclosing that they were paid for. This aspect particularly troubled James, who noted that “the opinions of influencers can have particularly strong influence over the reputation and sales for any product, company, service or person they endorse.”