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Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Fake news. Fake followers. And just in time for 2020 campaigns, fake video.

  • What's new: The problems with social media are growing — and real. Because so much is fake. 
  • We have fake news. Fake facts. Fake people on social media. And fake audience size. 
  • Why it matters: It’s an epidemic of fake that is twisting everything from politics to our perception of people’s identity and fame. 

Nick Confessore leads a N.Y. Times team exposé, "The Follower Factory," about how cheap and easy it is to become an "online influencer" by buying followers:

  • "Everyone wants to be popular online. Some even pay for it. Inside social media’s black market. ... Celebrities, athletes, pundits and politicians have millions of fake followers."
  • Our thought bubble: It's the digital-age version of being caught with a hooker.

From Confessore & Co.:

  • "These accounts are counterfeit coins in the booming economy of online influence, reaching into virtually any industry where a mass audience — or the illusion of it — can be monetized."
  • "By some calculations, as many as 48 million of Twitter’s reported active users — nearly 15 percent — are automated accounts designed to simulate real people, though the company claims that number is far lower."
  • A Florida-based company, Devumi, has collected millions of dollars [by selling] Twitter followers and retweets to celebrities, businesses."
  • "Drawing on an estimated stock of at least 3.5 million automated accounts, each sold many times over, the company has provided customers with more than 200 million Twitter followers."
  • "Devumi has more than 200,000 customers, including reality television stars, professional athletes, comedians, TED speakers, pastors and models."
  • "For just pennies each — sometimes even less — Devumi offers Twitter followers, views on YouTube, plays on SoundCloud, the music-hosting site, and endorsements on LinkedIn, the professional-networking site."
  • "In November, Facebook disclosed to investors that it had at least twice as many fake users as it previously estimated, indicating that up to 60 million automated accounts may roam the world’s largest social media platform."
  • The whole thing is worthy of your time.

Why this problem is getting worse, despite sudden attention from Washington and the platforms:

  • A new app has flooded the web with AI-generated fake celebrity porn.
  • In a potential oppo nightmare for 2020, machine-learning algorithms can generate convincing audio and video of fake events.
  • The Economist sees a "new battlefield between falsehood and veracity": "[I]mages and sound recordings retain for many an inherent trustworthiness."
  • Axios Science reported on a study this summer which found that we're not very good at spotting fake photos.
  • Twitter says in a new submission to Congress that "Russian-linked Twitter bots shared Donald Trump’s tweets almost half a million times during the final months of the 2016 election," per Bloomberg.
  • All this helps explain why trust in social media and search engines plunged in the new Edelman Trust Barometer. Axios' Sara Fischer says the survey reflects "a global reckoning around fake news and misinformation."

Be smart: We're inclined to be ever more passive in our media consumption. But technology, tricks and the times demand that we be more active, skeptical and discerning.

  • It's one of the most important new-world skills we can teach our kids — and ourselves.
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Go deeper

Updated 5 hours ago - Technology

From Malcolm X to "Free Britney," new media shapes the justice system

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

True crime documentaries, podcasts and social media campaigns are bringing new attention to real-world legal proceedings — and are often affecting the outcome.

Why it matters: New media platforms can instantly put a national spotlight on cases that have long been forgotten or buried under red tape.

Updated 7 hours ago - Health

The next big bottleneck in the global vaccination effort

Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

The world still needs more coronavirus vaccines, but an additional bottleneck has emerged in many low-income countries: They need help getting shots in arms.

Why it matters: Increasing vaccination rates across the world is both a humanitarian necessity and the best way to prevent dangerous new variants from emerging, but it increasingly requires complex problem-solving.

Updated 7 hours ago - Health

COVID-19 Omicron variant cases identified in Europe, U.K.

People wearing masks walk in London on Nov. 25. Photo: Li Ying/Xinhua via Getty Images

Health officials in the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany announced on Saturday that they've detected the first known cases of the new COVID-19 Omicron variant.

Why it matters: The discoveries come as the world scrambles to respond to concerns over the new variant, discovered in South Africa earlier this week.