When we think of identity theft, we often consider drained bank accounts and staggering credit scores. We think of it as a crime committed for direct and immediate financial gain, not for perceived popularity. But, similarly to what it has done to most aspects of society, social media is changing the standards of identity theft.
On Saturday, The New York Times published an article entitled “The Follower Factory,” a feature story focused on social media’s so-called “black market,” where companies sell fake followers. These fake profiles often draw information from real ones, resulting in what many consider to be identity theft.
The article cites the specific example of a Minnesota teenager named Jessica Rychly. Nearly all aspects of Rychly’s identity, the one available to the public through her social media accounts, were used to bring a fake profile to life.
The account would publish tweets in languages she did not speak or understand, and would often interact with and retweet content from pornography accounts. Her story, unfortunately, is not unique.
According to research from the University of Southern California and Indiana University, it’s possible 48 million — or about 15 percent — of Twitter’s total reported active users are automated accounts designed to simulate real people. Furthermore, the Times reported at least 55,000 of the accounts use personal details of real Twitter users, including minors.
Despite most social media websites prohibiting purchasing followers, a number of companies exist solely for that reason. Websites such as Devumi openly sell followers to a wealth of high-profile individuals such as television stars, professional athletes, TED speakers and pastors. Websites like Devumi function because, as of right now, no law prohibits their actions. The only reason why people wouldn’t buy and sell fake followers is if they had a strong moral conscious. And we all know, for the most part, much of the world is seriously lacking in that department.
Companies like Devumi don’t stop at the seemingly innocent act of increasing the follow-to-follower ratio. According to the Times, these fake followers can also act as “phantom foot soldiers in political battles.” In other words, the aggressive political battle you saw between your aunt and a realistic stranger could have been a throw down between her and a computer, meant to stir up and control political conversations.
The world needs to start paying attention to these fake accounts. With an ever-increasing focus on social media presence, a social media identity can be just as crucial as a real identity. College admissions officers or potential employers could find your name attached to outrageous political posts or wildly inappropriate pornography. No matter how clean you try to keep your social media accounts, someone else could be sabotaging you without you even knowing about it.
We can only hope the government takes action against this growing epidemic soon enough, allowing for legal action to be taken against those who steal social identities. Until then, however, we urge you all to consider the repercussions of purchasing fake friends. It’s more than an extra like; it’s someone’s identity. It’s someone’s life. It’s 2018, and it’s time we start taking social identity theft as seriously as we take all other forms of identity theft.