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2018 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Large Newsroom finalist

The Follower Factory

Finalist(s)
Nicholas Confessore, Gabriel J.X. Dance, Richard Harris and Mark Hansen

Organization
The New York Times

Award
The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Large Newsroom

Program
2018

Entry Links
Link 1 | Archive

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About the Project

In “The Follower Factory,” a team of reporters and developers at The New York Times revealed a global marketplace for social media fraud. We showed how shadowy entrepreneurs stole millions of identities to create the illusion of online influence for celebrities and executives, and how politicians and governments deployed fake “bot” accounts to win campaigns and shift public opinion. Most important, we demonstrated how this economy of fake influence victimized thousands of ordinary social media users, many of them minors.

The Times investigation combined traditional investigative reporting and innovative graphic design with purpose-built software and sophisticated statistical analysis. Many academic studies have tried to estimate the number of fake accounts on platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and other news outlets have written about how easy it is to buy fake followers online. But no other outlet has definitively catalogued an entire supply chain of social media fraud: the victims whose identities are stolen, the overseas wholesalers who use those identities to craft fake accounts in bulk, the retailers who sell fake followers online, and the actors, authors, game show hosts, “influencers” and porn stars who buy them.

Smart exploitation and presentation of data was central to our reporting from the start. After obtaining thousands of internal records from a high-volume bot seller called Devumi, The Times built custom software to identify the company’s entire client base. The Times also teamed up with a statistician, using other software to map out Devumi’s millions of fake accounts on Twitter. Our innovations also allowed reporters to track down tens of thousands of real-life victims whose social media identities had been stolen to create the fakes.

But The Times did not stop there. We tracked Devumi’s founder through his own layers of fabrication, from a fake New York address to a fake Ph.D. We revealed how the illusion of online influence — cheaply purchased — could yield real-world wealth and advancement for Devumi’s customers. The Times built software to reveal troubling statistical patterns in Twitter’s data that, our reporting showed, should have been obvious to the social media network’s own security systems. Ultimately, The Times exposed how some of Silicon Valley’s most popular and influential social media companies not only tolerate fake followers, but may actually rely on them to inflate their own businesses.

The reaction to The Times’s investigation was swift and substantial. Twitter quickly shut down more than a million fake accounts we had found, collectively stripping tens of millions of followers from prominent users in Hollywood and the business world. Senior lawmakers in Washington demanded that the Federal Trade Commission investigate. Law enforcement officials in Florida and New York opened their own investigations of Devumi, which shut down its Florida office and fled to Colorado. The Times also looked more deeply at Twitter, publishing a follow-up investigation that showed how laxly Twitter enforced its own policies, and prompting the company to begin an internal review.