The click-per-payment model, DiResta says, may also change influencers’ behavior—creating the “incentive to produce and amplify content in the most inflammatory way possible in order to drive the audience to take an action.” But at the most fundamental level, researchers voiced a concern about the potential for deception in civic discourse. DiResta said, “I don’t think the public really understands the extent to which the people making these posts are, in fact, potentially becoming enriched personally by them.”
The ramifications of not disclosing these ties can touch anyone, from your credulous grandmother all the way up to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A knowledgeable person with insight into an Urban Legend campaign described one client’s effort to apply pressure on the FCC. According to the person, one of the influencers enlisted was Eric Bolling, a disgraced former Fox News host and one of just 51 people President Trump followed on Twitter. Bolling’s post involved a “telecoms issue,” with a goal “to apply as much pressure” as possible on the FCC. There were “thousands of engagements overnight” from Bolling’s tweet, the person said, which “the FCC commissioner, Ajit Pai, and the president followed and saw.”
Today, Bolling’s tweet does not appear to be on his feed. Most social media marketing campaigns get deleted when they’ve run their course, and I found Urban Legend’s campaigns to be no exception. Rinat said influencers always know the identity of a client—and followers will know, too, because the link generally takes them to a campaign page, where the sponsor can be identified. Later, he said transparency is “a very important thing to influencer marketing, and particularly for our model. Without it, audience trust drops, and the resulting engagement drops.” He also called for clearer rules from enforcement agencies.
While lionizing transparency, Urban Legend continues to shield the identities of its influencers and the clients who pay them. The company’s tactfully hands-off approach to disclosure, Farid said, makes the Exchange “a system that is—by design—ripe for abuse.”
“At best, the appearance is bad,” he continued. “At worst, it’s hiding something nefarious.”
The satirist and critic H. L. Mencken once wrote that “whenever you hear a man speak of his love for his country, it is a sign that he expects to be paid for it.” The bone-dry notion that Americans would happily sell anything—even their patriotism—must have seemed like an amusing hypothetical at the time. But perhaps Mencken simply didn’t live long enough to see Americans offered the chance.
Last September, HuffPost reporter Jesselyn Cook noted a wave of Instagram posts that seemed to correspond 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 fundraises for Senate campaigns. The posts had headlines like “End to Mask Mandates, Endless Lockdowns and Vaccine Passports!” and demanded “a full investigation into Biden-tech collusion.” Each post linked to NRSC petitions, which harvested names and emails.
When I asked Rinat about the posts, he initially said he didn’t think the campaigns came from Urban Legend. A few weeks later, however, an Urban Legend client shared with WIRED several backdated screenshots of their influencers’ posts. Each of these posts redirected users to a petition by using a highly unusual URL construction, which began “exc.to.” According to computer science researchers who examined the string, the top-level domain “.to” is registered to the country of Tonga and has a registration history that cannot be seen. The domain “exc” was registered with the URL-shortening service Bit.ly, which works with private business clients to turn their registered domains into redirect links (such as “es.pn” for the sports network). Since Urban Legend’s founding in 2020, “exc.to” could not be found elsewhere on the internet, except in one place: the HuffPost story, in which a 16-year-old’s Instagram post for the NRSC bore the telltale URL “END MASK MANDATES: exc.to/3zLvUFB.”