Thanh Do / The Atlantic

In the summer of 2015, the game designer Bennett Foddy and I were sloshing down cocktails while waiting for prime dry-aged rib-eye steaks in Midtown Manhattan. We weren’t living large, exactly, but we did pause to assess our rising professional fortunes. Among them, both of us seemed to be blowing up on Twitter. “Where did all these followers come from?” I asked. We’d both added tens of thousands of apparent fans over the previous year or so.

Foddy, an unpresuming Australian with a doctorate in moral philosophy who now makes video games that purposely abuse their players, encouraged me not to get too chuffed about my entourage. We’d both been added to a list of accounts that are recommended to new Twitter users during the sign-up process, he explained. Many of our new followers were fake, created for the purposes of spam or resale. They had followed us automatically.

Even so, their effect was real: Foddy and I looked far more popular and important than our cronies. A colleague of Foddy’s at New York University, passed over by Twitter for such largesse, had become so agitated that he’d cornered Foddy to ask if he was buying followers. The whole matter was a Pandora’s box that I kept carefully hidden and firmly closed.

Last weekend, The New York Times opened it up. The paper ran an extensive investigative report about the companies that sell Twitter followers and retweets, and the people who buy them. Many of those people are famous already: The Times story opens with geometrically fractured portraits of the model Kathy Ireland, the athlete Ray Lewis, and the actor John Leguizamo. They are presented like modern mug shots of fraudsters caught in the act.

The report exposes Twitter as willfully duplicitous to users, advertisers, and investors—revelations that could (and should) harm the company’s value and reputation. But it also takes for granted that “real” followers are valid and valuable. The problem with Twitter—and with social media in general—isn’t that influence can be faked. It’s that it is seen to have so much significance in the first place.

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Less than a month after our steak dinner, my fake-follower spigot dried up—a change to the recommendation list, perhaps, or the onboarding process, or who knows what else. Foddy’s did, too, soon after. Our followings leveled off to a depressing plateau, and for the two-and-a-half years since, they have increased slowly, organically, and against the current of Twitter’s occasional deletion of spam accounts. Even so, the phantom following remained ours to keep, a ghost army that continues to bolster our reputations.

Despite the suspicions of Foddy’s colleague, neither he nor I had ever bought any followers. But not for lack of opportunity. Devumi, the main company unmasked in the Times feature, is but one of dozens of businesses that sell followers, likes, and shares on social-network services like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. They cost pennies apiece, especially when bought in large quantities.

Indeed, the fake-follower racket has become more sophisticated since my run-in with it in 2015. At that time, new accounts were mostly “eggs”—Twitter’s now-retired default profile picture—attached to randomly generated usernames. In 2017, Twitter started reducing the visibility of such users. This was mostly an effort to curb harassment, since bullies often create new accounts when their targets block or report old ones. But it also forced the forger’s market to up its game. The Times describes some of the successful tactics that followed: copying profile pictures and bios, invisibly altering usernames, and then registering the results as machines to follow and retweet paying customers.

The Times contrasts the celebrities and the hucksters who service them with the innocent, ordinary folks whose profiles are sometimes impersonated to create fake followers. After the fragmented faces of Ireland, Lewis, and Leguizamo, the Times presents an undistorted portrait of a Colorado engineer named Salle Ingle. The page calls her “a victim of social-media identity theft.”

Ingle’s impersonated account is clearly a sham. But the Times might make it seem a little too much like a simple encounter between good and evil. Fake accounts are counterfeits, but do they qualify as “identity theft?” Likewise, calling the buying and selling of such accounts “social-media fraud” on a “black market” seems to have rhetorical more than analytical force. The Times appears to want to take Twitter fakery as more than just flimflam, but the case it makes seems more like a scam than a criminal deception.

To assume that a clear line exists between Devumi and Kathy Ireland on one side and Salle Ingle on the other is to oversimplify the corruption of life on the internet. The appearance of importance has long replaced its reality online anyway.

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The Times acknowledges the reasons why people and businesses might be tempted to buy followers. There is a pressure, real or imagined, to appear influential. Influence begets more influence, and jump-starting a successful business or personal profile can feel like it might level the playing field.

Worse, the urge to increase one’s apparent influence affects more than just celebrities and corporations. It’s easy to sneer at people who are already famous and wealthy for buying the appearance of relevance rather than working for it. But that urge affects folks like Salle Ingle as much as folks like Kathy Ireland. The Times cites social-media influencers, a class of people—some household names and some unknowns—who can earn money directly from promoting products and services on networks like Twitter and Instagram. But increasingly, everyone is vying to create a credible and valuable “personal brand” online, even if they are just ordinary Working Joes.

As employment has become more precarious, and as the internet has wormed its way into every walk of life, the need—or at least the strong sensation of a need—to have a valuable online identity has only strengthened. Many boring, ordinary desk jobs now often require some kind of social-media activity, and demonstrating personal credibility on platforms like Twitter is one way to lay claim to it. The job of “social-media manager,” once unheard of, boasts 9 percent 10-year growth, according to CNN Money (which also rates the job a “C” in terms of personal satisfaction and benefit to society).

For people whose work product is intimately connected to their person, appearing influential online has become more important, too. Bennett Foddy and I were excited about our relative Twitter fame partly because of narcissism, and partly because it promised an improved platform for us as creators. When I go to write a book proposal, for example, having 100,000 Twitter followers offers evidence to the publishers who might buy my book. In an ideal world, it would mean that I have a platform from which to promote that book to a throng of eager buyers. But in the short-term, it mostly helps me appear to have such a platform in order to get the deal done.

* * *

This kind of short-term jockeying for incremental success used to be confined to sales and finance. There, a smarmy or even deceitful aggression designated an enterprising go-getter. But now everyone’s a hustler—in their day jobs, in their moonlighting (we call them “side hustles” now), and even in their personal lives. Hobbies have become latent instruments for future renown or profit: If you make crafts, you should have an Etsy store. If you make short films, you should monetize them on YouTube. Even social media—especially social media, maybe. There’s a reason that a “hustle” is a synonym for a con or grift; once you’re hustling, it’s a foregone conclusion that you’ll bend the norms to achieve the gain they would otherwise prohibit.

Today, everything is sales before it is anything else. For that reason, there is no such thing as a fake follower. The ideal follower might become an audience for an account’s ideas, influence, products, and services. But first, a follower has a more basic purpose. It increases a number on a profile, in the hope that this new number might increase further still. It is a tragic march toward its own meaningless, endless repetition.

And yet, it is also a social practice popular enough that it bears legitimate, if perverse, meaning. Back in 2014, the data scientist Gilad Lotan published an analysis of his own experiment buying followers. For $5, he added 4,000 bots to his account, more than doubling his follower count at the time (he’s up to 18,000 today). As a data scientist, Lotan demonstrated that these followers were of little to any actual value to him personally or professionally. They were disconnected from his organic network of contacts, and they were also disconnected from one another.

And yet, they delivered actual value, too. Lotan reported that his Klout score, a measure of online social influence, increased. Microsoft had invested in Klout, and it began using the service’s data in its Bing search engine. Thus, the new followers increased Lotan’s rank in Bing searches. It also made him feel good. “Even though I knew this was 100 percent fake, the thrill excited me,” Lotan writes, “and at the end of the process, having over 6,000 followers, in all honesty, felt really great.”

Therein lies the hard truth about fake followers. They’re not backed by human actors, but neither are a large number of Twitter accounts that have been abandoned but still get counted. Sometimes they are counterfeit, pretending to be real people, like Salle Ingle, who might experience real professional confusion or personal pain as a result. But the effect of fake followers often remains indistinguishable from supposedly real ones. Back in the 20th century, the postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard called this state of affairs “hyperreality”—a duplicate of the real that is not a copy, but a truth in its own right.

* * *

In the aftermath of the Times exposé, the real influence of fake influence will likely decay, to some extent. Services like TwitterAudit, which can scan accounts for questionable followers and report a ratio of fakes, might become more widely used. That could make employers, influence networks, and ordinary people slightly more literate about the profligacy of internet companies. Professional influencers might be affected by such a change, but ordinary folk probably won’t be.

More likely, they will endure the disorder of knee-jerk reactions. The investor Mark Cuban called for a real-name policy on services like Twitter, arguing that “there needs to be a single human behind every individual account.” That’s a terrible idea: As the entrepreneur  Anil Dash has argued, it would endanger marginalized people without improving trust. But Cuban’s reform does square with the Times’ take on virtue and wickedness at Twitter. Just shine light upon the shadows of the black market to put an end to the corruption. Then ordinary folk can be freed from the lust for fame that would rob them of their true selves.

But this is a fairy-tale story about the internet. Fraud is not the ultimate problem with fake social-media activity. The hustle itself is the blight. It produces the racket that sucks so many into its orbit. Salle Ingle is stuck in the same rat race as Kathy Ireland, and you and me, too. We just encounter it at different scales.

The culprit is the numbers themselves, not the lies that augment them, nor the profits made in doing so. The only reason there can be a market, let alone a black market, for social-media engagement is because these services are marketplaces of attention, not of ideas, products, or services. That’s why Twitter counts followers, likes, retweets, and all the rest so prominently. If the numbers were less visible, or entirely hidden, everyone might live more meaningful, more productive lives online, using posts as means to ends rather than as circulations within the system. It’s hard to imagine such a change taking place while companies like Twitter rely on the aspiration of visible metrics as a compulsion to use their services. That compulsion produces the attention necessary to sell advertisers and satisfy investors.

People now want the marketplace of attention more than the outcomes the attention might be directed toward. They expect it. To take away the followers I won in the Twitter-onboarding lottery would feel like a loss or theft, even though some large number of them are not real and never were. There is a pride in having built a platform for attention, and there is also a shame in feeling pride for it. To boast that one’s followers are all “real,” or to call for a near future in which that state of affairs is insured, is just to affirm the virtue of the system. This is the back that must be broken for anyone to feel free on social media.

That seems unlikely. It’s far easier to imagine an even worse corruption of the status quo, built around the luxurious evasion of the anxiety of false influence. Perhaps a new market might emerge, for those wealthy, proud, or arrogant enough to pursue extrication from the oppressive, numerical rat race: For a hefty fee, Twitter could forgo the display of followers, retweets, and all other numerical measures from a selected account. It would become the ultimate in opulence online, not to mention the most perfectly corrupt solution to the deception of fakery. To end-run the struggle for followers and retweets, without throwing a wrench in the gears of its industry.

What’s better than a million followers? The empty field that frees you of the urge to care.