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Fans, Fame, and a Good Reputation For Sale at the Click of a Mouse

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Fame has always been for sale. But the digital world has created new ways to cheat the bitch goddess and catapult yourself ahead of the pack.  

Recently, New Jersey state senator Barbara Buono, who will presumably run against Chris Christie for the governor’s seat, racked up 15,000 Twitter followers in the course of a week. Her campaign claimed it has been the victim of a hoax. Maybe. Or Maybe not.

Having a large number of Twitter followers is a big deal, but the slow and painstaking process of getting them has produced an entire industry of fake fandom. Politicians, celebrities, bloggers, and businesses often pump themselves up in the Twitterverse by purchasing thousands of followers, sometimes for as little as a penny each. Last July, Mitt Romney’s Twitter account magically acquired 100,000 followers over the course of a weekend, leading to suspicions of fakery. The social media management company StatusPeople has created a tool that susses out fake followers. According to the NYT, the tool gauged that 71 percent of Lady Gaga’s followers are fake, along with 70 percent of President Obama’s followers. MTV and BET recently pulled a stunt in which they pretended that hackers had taken over their accounts in order to gain fake Twitter fans.

In the brave new world of publishing, authors are often expected to be editors, marketers, and salespeople. Enter hustlers like Todd Rutherford, who make big bucks selling positive book reviews for self-published books on the Web (20 percent of Amazon’s best-sellers are self-published). Rutherford’s glowing fake consumer reviews sold for  $99 a pop, replete with words like “classic,” and “stunning.” The New York Times shamed Mr. Rutherford, but plenty of others have scrambled to take his place. A quick Google search of the term “buy a book review” turned up several companies willing to sell you reviews for websites like Amazon, along with blurbs and book-jacket endorsement.

Reviews that appear to be written by regular people are now a mainstay of commerce. Back in 2000, I became founding editor of IgoUgo.com, an early social networking site built around travel that solicited first-hand user reviews. Our editorial team could often tell if someone were gaming the system—reviews would lack specificity and contain cliché phrases. But surely not always. The Federal Trade Commission requires disclosure of financially driven endorsements, but Bing Liu, a data-mining expert as the University of Illinois, Chicago, told the NYT that roughly a third of online reviews are fake.

Also for sale online: Yelp reviews: “ Make Yelpers love your business!” proclaims one seller, Facebook “likes” and YouTube page views.  Hotels have been known to bribe customers with freebies in exchange for writing positive reviews on sites like Tripadvisor.com.

Worried about your online reputation? No problem. Online companies will “scrub” negative items that pop up in Google searches and manipulate the placement of positive pages.

The downside of these purchases is that if you get caught, your reputation could take a hit. Sleuths can often tell which reviews sound formulaic. Yelp has set up a sting operation to catch fake reviewers, and Twitter has taken action by filing suit against spammers who create fake followers.  Let the buyer beware.