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Three teenage girls lost in the world of smartphone apps and messaging. Photo: In Pictures Ltd. / Corbis via Getty Images

A New York Times investigation revealed that an approximate 48 million Twitter users are fake profiles "designed to simulate real people," which can be sold to customers trying to gain more followers.

Why it matters: Per the Times, the fake accounts "can help sway advertising audiences and reshape political debates. They can defraud businesses and ruin reputations." And, they're made to imitate real people, who may also be on Twitter, and haven't given permission for their photos or names to be used.

The buyers
  • Devumi, a company that sells at least 3.5 million fake Twitter accounts as followers to anyone trying to "exert influence online," has sold to people like former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis, a reporter at Breitbart, and even a board member at Twitter, Martha Lane Fox.
  • People can make real money from how many followers they have. Social media influencers can earn thousands of dollars depending on how many people are seeing their "promotional tweet," the Times reports.
  • Some Devumi costumers are making purchases for work. One buyer, Marcus Holmlund, was hired as a social media manager for a modeling agency. He began buying followers when its "Twitter following didn't grow fast enough."
The impact
  • One woman, Whitney Wolfe, stopped using her Twitter account in 2014. But by that point, "a fake account copying her personal information had been created." It retweeted things she didn't support, like "pictures of women in thongs" and "pictures of women's chests."
  • Another victim, Salle Ingle, said she was "really grateful" that no potential employers saw the fake account imitating her when she was applying for jobs.
The rules
  • Twitter "strictly prohibits" buying or selling interaction and followers.
  • Per the Times, Devumi CEO German Calas denied that the company was selling fake followers.
  • The Devumi website, however, says: "Our followers look like any other followers...the only way anyone will know is if you tell them," the Times reports.

The bottom line: The fake accounts being sold are imitating real people, with only slight changes in usernames or photos. Per the Times, the accounts "borrowed social identities from Twitter users" all over the world, "from adults and minors alike." A former Twitter engineer told the Times: "Twitter as a social network was designed with almost no accountability."

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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

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  2. Politics: Biden unveils "wartime" COVID strategyBiden's COVID-19 bubble.
  3. Vaccine: Florida requiring proof of residency to get vaccine — CDC extends interval between vaccine doses for exceptional cases.
  4. World: Hong Kong to put tens of thousands on lockdown as cases surge.
  5. Sports: 2021 Tokyo Olympics hang in the balance.
  6. 🎧 Podcast: Carbon Health's CEO on unsticking the vaccine bottleneck.

Trump impeachment trial to start week of Feb. 8, Schumer says

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Photo: The Washington Post via Getty

The Senate will begin former President Trump's impeachment trial the week of Feb. 8, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Friday on the Senate floor.

The state of play: Schumer announced the schedule after reaching an agreement with Republicans. The House will transmit the article of impeachment against the former president late Monday.

4 hours ago - Health

CDC extends interval between COVID vaccine doses for exceptional cases

Photo: Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty

Patients can space out the two doses of the coronavirus vaccine by up to six weeks if it’s "not feasible" to follow the shorter recommended window, according to updated guidance from the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention.

Driving the news: With the prospect of vaccine shortages and a low likelihood that supply will expand before April, the latest changes could provide a path to vaccinate more Americans — a top priority for President Biden.