The pay-per-click model, DiResta says, can also change the behavior of influencers—creating “an incentive to produce and amplify content in the most inflammatory way possible to get audiences to take action.” But at the most basic level, researchers have expressed concern about the potential for deception in civil discourse. DiResta said, “I don’t think the public really understands the extent to which the people who make these posts are, in fact, potentially personally enriching themselves.”
The consequences of not disclosing these connections can affect everyone from your gullible grandmother to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A person with knowledge of the Urban Legend campaign described one client’s attempt to pressure the FCC. According to the person, one of the influencers was Eric Bolling, the disgraced former Fox News host and one of only 51 people President Trump followed on Twitter. Bolling’s announcement included a “telecommunications issue,” with the goal of “putting as much pressure as possible” on the FCC. There were “thousands of overnight engagements” from Bolling’s tweet, the person said, which “FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai and the president were monitoring and seeing.”
Today, Bolling’s tweet doesn’t appear to be on his feed. Most social media marketing campaigns are deleted when they’re over, and I’ve found that Urban Legend campaigns are no exception. Rinat said that influencers always know the identity of the client – and followers will know too, because the link usually takes them to the campaign page, where the sponsor can be identified. He later said that transparency is “a very important thing for influencer marketing, and especially for our model. Without it, audience trust declines and the resulting engagement declines.” He also called for clearer rules from enforcement agencies.
Practicing transparency, Urban Legend continues to protect the identities of its influencers and their paying clients. The company’s tactical approach to disclosure, Farid said, makes the stock market “a system that is — by design — ripe for abuse.”
“At best, the outlook is poor,” he continued. “At worst, he’s hiding something nefarious.”
Satirist and critic HL Mencken once wrote that “whenever you hear a man talk of his love for his country, it is a sign that he expects to be paid for it.” The dry idea that Americans would gladly sell anything—even their patriotism—must have seemed like an amusing hypothetical at the time. But perhaps Mencken simply did not live long enough to see Americans being offered a chance.
Last September, HuffPost reporter Jesselyn Cook noticed a wave of Instagram posts that appeared to coincide with the timing of a large payment to Urban Legend for “advertising,” according to FEC filings, through a partner firm called Legendary Campaigns. The purchase was made by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which raises funds for Senate campaigns. The posts had headlines like “End of Mandate Masks, Endless Lockdowns and Vaccine Passports!” and demanded a “full investigation into the collusion of Biden and tech.” Each post was linked to NRSC petitions, which collected names and e-mails.
When I asked Rinat about the posts, he initially said he didn’t think the campaigns were coming from Urban Legend. However, a few weeks later, client Urban Legend shared with WIRED several screenshots backdating their influencers’ posts. Each of these posts redirected users to the petition using a very unusual URL construction, which began with “exc.to”. According to computer science researchers who examined the string, the “.to” top-level domain 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 works with private business clients to convert their registered domains into redirect links (such as “es.pn” for a sports network). Since Urban Legend’s inception in 2020, “exc.to” has been nowhere to be found on the internet except in one place: a HuffPost story, in which a 16-year-old’s Instagram post for the NRSC bore the telltale URL “END MASK MANDATI: exc .to/3zLvUFB.”