A couple of weeks ago, I received a phone call to my office line from an unavailable number. I picked up. "Get a paper and pen," the voice instructed me. I asked who it was. "Write down 'rantic'," the male voice said slowly and deliberately. I asked once more who he was. "Expect an e-mail from me in 10 minutes," he replied. He hung up.
About an hour later, an e-mail came through containing two screenshots. The first was what appeared to be Scooter Braun—the well-known talent manager behind Justin Bieber and PSY—having a Skype conversation with a person named "Kenzo." Braun (if it was really him) appeared to be buying around 200 million YouTube views for an unnamed video. "We do not want any traces or any low-quality views that can get us in trouble…" the screen shot showed Braun as saying.
A second screenshot attached appeared to show Scooter Braun sending a PayPal payment for $150,000, though the recipient's address was blocked out and there was little else in the way of identification. The anonymous sender wrote: "Image originates from a worker who works at Rantic in the YouTube views/Facebook Likes department. They took down their site & their services as soon as a hacker from 4chan went into their database and stole their images/data."
On top of this, the emailer sent links to several to stories about politicians who fake Twitter followers, and musicians that inflate their popularity by buying fake views. "Good luck," he concluded. "Hope to see your story all over international news outlets."
The message obviously piqued my curiosity. First of all, you have someone claiming that the manager of some of the world's biggest celebrities are buying their online popularity, not earning it legitimately. These aren't just "promoted" views, either. These are views that are just straight-up fake.
Then you have the mention of Rantic, a shadowy group that–at the time–meant nothing to me. But while reporting out this story, the group became linked to the Emma Watson nude photo hack, which was later determined to be a hoax. And a few days after that, Rantic was hacked itself.
I wanted to untangle the threads that my tipster had dangled in front of me. That has led me down a weird and confusing path, putting me in touch with people that operate on a first-name-only basis.
YouTube views aren't some quaint little marketing component or minor audience building tool. They can make or break a new career, and add a lot of money to the bank accounts of existing stars. They've become so relevant to the industry that Billboard now factors in YouTube view counts when creating its Top 100 rankings.
Problem is, lots of YouTube views 'earned' by top celebs have been shown to be fake views. In December 2012, at the height of the Gangam Style craze, The Daily Dot reported that Google removed some 2 billion YouTube views on videos owned by Universal Music Group, Sony/BMG, and RCA Records. Regardless, PSY's Gangam Style video stands as the most-watched YouTube video of all time with 2.1 billion views (though the veracity of those views have been called into question before).
The Google crackdown hasn't completely wiped out the phonies, though. One of the people I spoke with along the way, "Robert," the anonymous founder of YouTube view vendor comparison site BuyViewsReview.com, told me that "companies are not only trying to top one another, but also trying to stay one step ahead of YouTube."
"The bots watch other videos (not just the client's video), they like, dislike and comment. They even use proxies/TOR to create a unique identity for each individual bot that's very hard to detect."
To understand the cat-and-mouse game, I also talked with "Martin V.," the owner of the YouTube view site 500views.com, who told me "you can make upwards of $1,000 day by selling views." The market, he says, is "very hot [because] the potential to make so much is money is so high…It's a very dog-eat-dog competition out there."
So that's why and how Justin Bieber's manager might have bought view counts. (Braun's camp, for their part, haven't responded to my request for comment). But did he?