Astroturf was again in the news last week, but not because the big game whose name we can’t mention was played on synthetic turf. Rather, last week, the office of the NY Attorney General (“AG”) announced it reached a precedent-setting settlement with artificial engagement company Devumi LLC and related companies (“Devumi”) over the selling of fake followers, likes, and influencer messaging (a/k/a “astroturfing”). Venable has been tracking the NY AG office’s assault on similar companies engaged in astroturfing for over five years. According to the press release, however, this is the first finding by a law enforcement agency that the sale of fake social media engagement and the use of stolen identities to perpetuate such online engagement is illegal.
Devumi utilized two types of accounts to carry out its large-scale astroturfing operation. Computer-operated accounts (“bot accounts”) and accounts controlled by one person pretending to be many other people (“sock-puppet accounts”) allowed Devumi to sell fake followers, likes, and other activity across platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, and Pinterest. The social media engagement looked like the real thing—it appeared to express genuine opinions of real people. In fact, some of the fake accounts were derived from copies of real people’s social media accounts, using their photos, profile text, and more—of course, without that real person’s knowledge or consent. Using this façade, the artificial engagement aimed to deceive online audiences and the public.
Beyond the bot and sock-puppet accounts, Devumi also sold endorsements from social media influencers but failed to disclose any material connection. The NY AG office found this “especially troubling,” because the high visibility of influencers and their opinions can translate into appreciable changes in viewers’ opinions and spending habits. These deceptive marketing tactics had consequences on the brand side as well—according to the AG’s findings, Devumi’s astroturfing influenced advertisers’ sponsorship decisions. Interestingly, Devumi even deceived some of its own customers, who mistakenly believed they were purchasing authentic endorsements.
While it is clear that Devumi broke Venable’s golden rules for influencer marketing, that this settlement came from a state law enforcement agency leaves open the question of how this would play out at the federal level. We’ll be sure to continue tracking this issue—stay tuned.