Lately, I've heard a lot about a new website that shows what percentage of someone's Twitter followers are "fake," "inactive" and "good."
If the Fake Follower Check site is accurate, some of the biggest Twitter users, including President Obama, Lady GaGa and Justin Bieber, have thousands or even millions of "followers" who aren't real people.
I've been looking into this phenomenon, and I've been shocked by what I've found. There is, apparently, a massive lies-for-sale industry made up of services that either offer tools to help people lie, or tell lies directly on behalf of their customers.
How much does it cost to fake popularity? On the cheap side, you can buy 1,000 Twitter followers for $14 on a site called InterTwitter; 5,000 followers cost $43; 100,000 cost $487.
Followers are even cheaper on FanMeNow, where you can buy 1,000 followers for $10 -- or 1 million for $1,350.
Higher-end sites like Buy Active Fans promise not just followers, but engaged followers -- and even American ones. But those higher quality followers will cost you: 1,000 global followers cost $10, but 1,000 Americans will set you back $50. A global 100,000 runs $460, but the same number of Yanks costs $4,650.
Some of these businesses will also sell you followers and fans on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and other sites.
The fake Twitter followers industry is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, a huge fake-popularity industry takes many forms. An application called One million Clicks, billed as a Web traffic simulator, will make it look like your site is getting mad traffic.
For $5, you can even have a fake girlfriend on Facebook. A site called GirlfriendHire lets you browse and pick a phony companion - and that person will actually provide the service of posting on your wall, etc., so your family and friends think you really are dating someone.
Even Google Voice will lie for you. When you "block" a number on the service, anyone who calls from that number will get a perfectly convincing "this number is no longer in service" message.
You can install a huge number of iOS and Android apps that simulate calls to your phone. Most of these will ring your phone, spoofing a fake caller ID ("Look, it's the president again!") and then coach you through a conversation. The software tells you what to say so that others in the room will think you're responding. Some of the more popular apps include Fake-a-Call for iOS, Fake Conversation for iOS and Fake Call Me for Android.
Similar apps will send you fake text messages. For that service, try Fake-a-Message.
If you want to pretend to be someone you're not while making a real phone call, there's an app for that. Fake Voice will mask your voice, making it sound like someone else's.
A Windows application also called Fake Voice does something similar.
There's also an interesting subcategory of smartphone apps that spoof your GPS location, making it look like you're somewhere you're not. These include Fake GPS Location on Android.
If you're an Android user and want people to believe you're an Apple user, you can use the Fake iPad 3 Screen app. (Make sure your Android tablet is rectangular with rounded corners.)
Some software lets you pump pre-recorded video into webcam software to make it seem like you're someone or somewhere you're really not. PerfectFakeWebcam and Fake Webcam are two of the more popular options.
A download called Pwn Mail spoofs the sender address for outgoing email. That means you can send email, but the recipient thinks it came from whomever you specified.
Some lying software is just plain goofy. For example, an iOS app called Fake a Fish lets you take one of your actual photos and add an image of a big fish, so it looks like you caught it.
FatBooth for iOS enables you to a modify a photo of someone to make him look fatter.
A site called iFakeSiri will let you type in the dialogue of a fake conversation between you and Apple's voice assistant, Siri. The site will produce a convincing screen-capture spoofing the conversation.
Most of these, of course, are for pranks and fun. But another site is very serious about helping you flat-out lie.
A service called the Alibi Network will actually tell just about any lie you want to tell, and it will do it by email, fax or phone. The service's professional liars are standing by to call your spouse or boss. When they call, they'll leave a number for callback, and the caller will get a voicemail message. They'll even print certificates of achievement, showing that you attended a seminar or passed some test.
Is all this computer-aided lying unethical? I think the answer, obviously, depends on how people use them. Any of these could be used for good or ill.
The important thing is that we all know these products and services exist, so we're not fooled by such software and services and can focus our skepticism properly when people provide "evidence" for things that are just plain lies.