When Does the Sh*t Hit the (Fake) Fans for Brands?

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Credit: Illustration by Tam Nguyen/Ad Age

We do and we do and we do for B- and C-list celebrities, and this is the thanks we get?

It's a bit sad and demoralizing to think about it, but thanks to a New York Times investigation published last week, we now know that a wide range of would-be social media stars, talking heads, "influencers" and other assorted fame whores are less popular than they would have us believe.

The Times got its hands on the records of an "obscure American company named Devumi that has collected millions of dollars in a shadowy global marketplace for social media fraud"—supplying thousands and even hundreds of thousands of fake (bot) followers to individual customers who wanted to pretend to be big deals on Twitter.

Among those the Times revealed to be Devumi customers: Louise Linton, the wife of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin—she "bought followers when she was trying to gain traction as an actress"—Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Richard Roeper, and former supermodel and lifestyle guru Kathy Ireland, who has more than a million Twitter followers—though, ha, "much of Ms. Ireland's Twitter following appears to consist of bots, a Times analysis found."

Of course, in the wake of continuing coverage of the Russian bots that invaded Twitter to attempt to game our political system—including the late-January revelation (by Twitter to the Senate Judiciary Committee) that such bots retweeted their boy Donald Trump nearly half-a-million times leading up to the 2016 presidential election (vs. fewer than 50,000 retweets for poor Hillary Clinton)—it was only a matter of time that other Twitter bot armies would be exposed.

What's changed now is the Times has forced the commercial, as opposed to the geopolitical, black market out of the shadows in a really specific and quantifiable way—and it's made targets of Devumi customers as much as Devumi itself.

Devumi is an easy villain and target, right down to its pretend headquarters in Manhattan. (It seems to actually be based in West Palm Beach, Florida, according to the Times.) But the Times exposé is also getting Devumi customers in trouble with their partners and employers. Roeper, for instance, has been suspended by the Sun-Times while management conducts its own investigation.

And in the wake of announced federal and state investigations into Devumi's practices, the Times notes that "more than a million followers have disappeared from the accounts of dozens of prominent Twitter users" including "an array of entertainers, entrepreneurs, athletes and media figures" since the publication of its report.

That, of course, is pretty amusing—bots getting snuffed out as we all watch the "popularity" of assorted social media hacks shrink in real time—but let's remember whom we should really be blaming.

A core message of every social platform is "size matters," and each has peddled its own solutions for gaining followers, albeit "organic"/real ones. They (Twitter especially) haven't done nearly enough to slap down those who rent out bot armies, because bots have, frankly, contributed to their topline growth, or the appearance of it, anyway.

But beyond the platforms, the most culpable parties are the big brands that have blindly bought into social media big-ism, and have often chased after follower/fan growth solely for the sake of growth. How many brands have prioritized social media counts over engagement? And how many brands have themselves done dubious things to get big fast on social media?

If Devumi and other shady bot brokers like it go down, that's progress. If the fake-follower scandal prompts brands to audit and rethink their social media strategies, that's even better.

But what really needs to happen is brands have to put the screws to Twitter et al. and demand real solutions to the bot plague.

Meanwhile, snickering at hapless social media strivers like Linton, Roeper and Ireland sure is fun, but it gets us nowhere.

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