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 email from me in 10 minutes,” he replied. He hung up.
About an hour later, an email came through containing two screen shots. 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 screen shot attached appeared to show 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 who 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 is 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 itself got hacked.
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, “Companies are not only trying to top one another, but also trying to stay one step ahead of YouTube.”
He continued, “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. “You can make upwards of $1,000 day by selling views,” he said. “[The market 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 hasn’t responded to my request for comment). But did he?
Search for “Rantic” online and you won’t find much. I found a basic web page of a marketing firm that purported to work for high-profile clients—but there was no contact information, and the page appeared to have been set up only recently. Last week, though, there was evidence that a group calling itself “Rantic Marketing” was behind the Emma Watson nude-photo hoax—a hoax covered by a number of international, well-respected media outlets. Business Insider wrote that Rantic is a “fake company run by a gang of prolific internet spammers used to quickly capitalize on internet trends for page views.”
Something else was fishy: The domain of the email address reputedly used by Braun in the PayPal screen shot was Schoolbr.com, an address that redirected me to the website of the department of education for a small town in the Tverskaya Oblast, a rural Russian region noted for its lakes and historical sites, located about a four-hour drive from Moscow. It’s not exactly the email address you’d expect from a world-famous talent agent.
I tracked down “Kenzo,” who theoretically sold Braun all those lovely views. He was the guy conversing with Braun in the Skype chat. Kenzo runs a site called www.YTView.com, “Your #1 socials [sic] media provider,” with an illustrated picture of Psy dancing his little jig on its front page. Next to Psy, it reads: “Satisfaction guaranteed.”
“Kenzo,” who claims to have been in the business since 2012, spoke with me via Skype messenger about his clients. “Some [sic] artist, musician, company, and regular people,” he said. There were “too many” high-profile ones to name. He said his biggest score so far is a $4,000 payout for 5 million views. That’s “for a regular client,” he said. “For a big client, that’s too much to tell.”
When I asked “Kenzo” if Braun was a client, he replied with a smiley face with sunglasses. “Is that a yes?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. Then I asked him which videos he promoted. “I cannot disclose detail our customer data,” he said. “That would be against our policy.”
I had gotten nowhere, so I turned back to my original source—the mystery emailer. We spoke on the phone briefly, and he said he believed those views were purchased for Psy and his “Gangam Style” video. Then I asked him why he’d reached out to me in the first place.
“I wanted it to get published on the Internet,” he said. “The whole YouTube industry has been scamming billions from advertisers with fake views.”
The next day he sent me another note. “I’m going to give you my name,” he wrote. “I don’t even care anymore those bastards can die in hell.” And what was the name of this angry crusader? “Brad,” he said.
I asked “Brad” why he was so seemingly angry about Scooter Braun allegedly buying fake YouTube videos. “Because,” he wrote, “purchasing views, likes and followers is not right.”
So who was “Brad”? Was it “Kenzo”? “Robert”? “Martin V”? All of the above? Perhaps the caller was a rival of “Kenzo,” looking to expose him and have Google shut him down in an attempt to capture his market share. Or maybe he’s in on the Rantic collective and wanted to get them some publicity leading up to the Emma Watson hoax.
Incidentally, the name being used by the CEO of Rantic? The dubious-sounding “Brad Cockingham.”
Maybe now I’m finally getting somewhere. Assuming, of course, that Rantic is even real and that it even has a CEO.