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What's the difference between paying for fake followers and selling bots that use stolen identities?
There is no difference because they are both embarrassments. Actually, selling bots with stolen identities as fake followers is also a crime.
That's what New York's attorney general says after opening an investigation based on an expose by the New York Times. The newspaper disclosed that social media users buy fake followers -- bots using real identities -- to raise their public profile.
According to the Times, a company called Devumi claims to increase social media presence on Twitter, YouTube, and other sites by selling followers to users.
The newspaper reported that companies like that have provided customers with "more than 200 million Twitter followers," at least 55,000 of which "use the names, profile pictures, hometowns and other personal details of real Twitter users."
The revelation caught the attention of other news outlets and authorities. Newsweek published the names of scores of celebrities, including actors, athletes, and so-called opinion leaders, who had paid for followers.
"Impersonation and deception are illegal under New York law," New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman posted on Twitter. "We're opening an investigation into Devumi and its apparent sale of bots using stolen identities."
Schneiderman said that bots are drowning out the voices of real people in the public conversation.
"The internet should be one of the greatest tools for democracy -- but it's increasingly being turned into an opaque, pay-to-play playground," he tweeted.
Last year, his office opened an investigation into comments left by fake accounts on the website of the Federal Communications Commission. The comments impersonated real people during open comments on net neutrality.
The continuing issue has played out publicly since the presidential campaign in 2016, and has heightened recently as reports have revealed more details. Twitter said this month that more than 50,000 automated accounts exposed nearly 700,000 people to Russian propaganda during the election.