The click-per-pay model, DiResta says, can also change influencers’ behavior, creating the “incentive to produce and amplify content in the most incendiary way possible to drive the audience to take an action.” But at the most basic level, researchers expressed concern about the potential for deception in public debate. DiResta said, “I don’t think the public really understands to what extent the people who make these posts are in fact potentially personally enriched by them.”
The consequences of not disclosing these tapes can affect everyone from your gullible grandmother to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. An expert person with insight into an Urban Legend campaign described a client’s attempt to put pressure on the FCC. According to the person, Eric Bolling was one of the influencers, a disgraced former Fox News host and one of only 51 people to follow President Trump on Twitter. Bolling’s post referred to a “telecom problem,” with the aim of “putting as much pressure as possible” on the FCC. There were “thousands of orders overnight” from Bolling’s tweet, the person said, who “followed and saw the FCC commissioner, Ajit Pai, and the president.”
Today, Bolling’s tweet does not appear to be on his feed. Most social media marketing campaigns are removed as they go about their business, and I found Urban Legend’s campaigns to be no exception. Rinat said influencers always know a customer’s identity — and followers will know that too, because the link generally takes them to a campaign page, where the sponsor can be identified. He later said that transparency is “very important for influencer marketing, and especially for our model. Without it, public trust wanes, and the resulting engagement wanes.” He also called for clearer rules from enforcement agencies.
While committed to transparency, Urban Legend continues to protect the identities of its influencers and the customers who pay them.
While committed to transparency, Urban Legend continues to protect the identities of its influencers and the customers who pay them. Farid’s tactful hands-off approach to disclosure, Farid said, makes the Exchange “a system that is design ripe for abuse.”
“At best, looks are bad,” he continued. “At worst, it hides something outrageous.”
ILLUSTRATION: MARIA FRADE
The satirist and critic HL Mencken once wrote that “to hear a man speak of his love for his country is a sign that he expects to be paid for it.” The bone-dry idea that Americans would be happy to sell anything—even their patriotism—must have seemed like an amusing hypothetical thought at the time. But maybe Mencken just didn’t live long enough to see Americans get the chance.
Last September, HuffPost reporter Jesselyn Cook noticed a spate of Instagram posts that appeared to correspond to the timing of a large payment to Urban Legend for “advertising,” according to FEC filings, through a partner company called Legendary Campaigns. The purchase was made by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which raises money for Senate campaigns. The posts had headlines like “End of mask mandates, endless lockdowns and vaccine passports!” and demanded “a full investigation into Biden-tech collusion.” Each post linked to NRSC petitions, which collected names and emails.
When I asked Rinat about the messages, he initially said he didn’t think Urban Legend’s campaigns were coming. However, a few weeks later, an Urban Legend customer shared with WIRED several outdated screenshots of their influencers’ posts. Each of these posts redirected users to a petition using a very unusual URL construct, starting with “exc.to”. According to computer science researchers who investigated the string, the top-level domain “.to” is registered in the country of Tonga and has a registration history that cannot be seen. The domain “exc” is registered with the URL shortening service Bit.ly, which partners with private business customers to convert their registered domains into redirect links (such as “es.pn” for the sports network). Since Urban Legend’s inception in 2020, “exc.to” has been nowhere else on the web except in one place: the HuffPost story, where a 16-year-old’s Instagram post for the NRSC included the telltale URL “END MASK bore MANDATES: exc.to/3zLvUFB.”
This post Meet the lobbyist next door
was original published at “https://www.wired.com/story/meet-the-lobbyist-next-door/”