Should faking your Twitter influence get you suspended from your job?

In some industries, your social media followers are an important metric for prospective and current employers to measure your influence in the workplace.

But a new investigation from the New York Times alleges that popularity can be bought, and many celebrities, including actor John Leguizamo, former NFL player Ray Lewis, singer Clay Aiken, and even a Twitter board member are buying Twitter followers from a company called Devumi. The Times reports that Devumi, which promises “100 Percent Active, English Followers,” has sold 200 million Twitter followers to at least 39,000 customers. In the case of at least 55,000 of the sold followers, the accounts were bots that stole real people’s identities.

Can you get in trouble if you fake your influence?

Buying fake followers can falsely increase the perception of an employee’s popularity and power. That is a misleading action, but is it an illegal one? Twitter, which does not require real people to be behind each account, said it “strictly prohibits” users from buying followers. Buying influence may not just violate a social media company’s policy, but when the influence comes from faked accounts of real people, it may be in violation of state and federal impersonation and commercial deception laws.

Following the Times investigation, Senators Jerry Moran and Richard Blumenthal asked the Federal Trade Commission to start an investigation into the “deceptive and unfair marketing practices” of Devumi and its rival companies.

Employees facing fallout for faking social media numbers

Employees are compelled to fake social media numbers because they may work in industries where every “like” or “follow” matters. But it can be a risky game. When your next raise or endorsement is dependent on the influence you can convince your employer you have, faking it may cost you professionally. U.S. political site The Hill issued a staff-wide memo banning the purchase of Twitter followers after one of its columnists Joe Concha, who was listed in the Times report, admitted he had bought 5,000 followers.

The Chicago Sun-Times went one step further and suspended its film critic Richard Roeper while it investigating him for appearing in the Times list of Duvemi clients.

Roeper, who has also worked on Chicago television stations, may have felt pressured to rapidly increase his follower count by his employers. “There’s a lot of emphasis at these TV stations on getting a lot of social media followers. That is one measure that use to evaluate the success and effectiveness of their on-air employee,” Chicago media critic Robert Feder told The Washington Post.

But if the Sun-Times wants to fully investigate the legitimacy of its employees’ Twitter following, it may first want to start with its own. In response to the Sun-Times announcement of its decision to suspend Roeper, one user shared an audit report with the newspaper of how many of its own Twitter account’s followers were fake: