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Twitter followers reportedly disappear as authorities look into fake accounts

Entrepreneurs, athletes and celebrities are among those who have lost followers on Twitter in recent days as over a million followers have vanished from accounts belonging to dozens of prominent users, The New York Times reported Wednesday. The accounts have disappeared as Twitter faces growing scrutiny about fake accounts and the shadowy firms that peddle fake followers.

Some of those who lost followers had purchased fake engagement or followers from Devumi, according to The Times, which described it in a report Saturday as an "obscure American company" that "collected millions of dollars in a shadowy global marketplace for social media fraud." Authorities in several states are now looking into Devumi, and similar companies in some states are also being scrutinized.

Among those who have lost a chunk of followers recently are Clay Aiken and reality TV star Lisa Rinna, as well as Twitter board member Martha Lane Fox, according to the newspaper. Others have tweeted about losing hundreds or thousands of followers, indicating that those affected aren't Devumi customers alone.

When contacted by CBS News Wednesday, Twitter did not comment on whether it is purging fake accounts from the platform. On Tuesday, a spokeswoman from Twitter declined to comment to The Times on the same issue, the paper reported.  

However, the company said in a a tweet Saturday that "the tactics used by Devumi on our platform and others as described by today's NYT article violate our policies and are unnacceptable to us. We are working to stop them and any companies like them."

Twitter spokeswoman Kristin Binns also told The Times: "We continue to fight hard to tackle any malicious automation on our platform as well as false or spam accounts."

Questions about fake accounts highlight concerns about false and fraudulent information on social media platforms, including the spread of fake news. False stories during the 2016 campaign went viral, gaining readers and credibility -- and calling into question Twitter's ability to monitor its platform, CBS News' John Blackstone reported earlier this month. 

Two juniors at the University of California, Berkeley found that many of the most angry and partisan tweets on the platform, on both sides, come not from real people but from automated Twitter accounts known as bots, which they're trying to fight. Ash Bhat and Rohan Phadte created a bot buster -- "Botcheck.me" -- that anyone can use to check whether a Twitter account is a real person.

"You can just go in and click that and in a few seconds, we get a classification," said Bhat as he demonstrated the process.

In a blog post earlier this month, Twitter said it, too, is battling the bots, catching "about 450,000 suspicious logins per day." But the students said their bot buster is still helping users discover thousands of bots on Twitter.