Vocativ reporter Eric Markowitz received a phone call a few weeks ago that demanded he take out a piece of paper and a pen to write down the word, “Rantic.”
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.”
The tip that Markowitz received would later spur him to find out not only who was reportedly helping Braun in lapping up YouTube views — an incredibly valuable currency in today’s media landscape — but also if it was actually Braun purchasing the views. In the case of Braun’s clients, Justin Bieber and Psy, the former only recently had his top spot as most-viewed artist on YouTube (where his views are in the billions) overtaken by Rihanna, and the latter owns the most-viewed clip on YouTube of all time.
However, a 2012 crackdown on two billion fraudulent YouTube views affected Justin Bieber’s overall count.
So was it really Braun in the aforementioned screenshots?
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.
Markowitz did manage to track down the hacker feature in those emails, “Kenzo,” who spoke with Markowitz over Skype messenger.
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.”
Markowitz still remains skeptical as to whether Braun did or did not buy YouTube views. He received no confirmation from either Braun’s camp or Kenzo’s identity to verify the working relationship (Kenzo might not even theoretically be “Kenzo”; he might be a rival).
But if Kenzo did indeed help Braun in building his clients’ YouTube views, he wanted to come clean with Markowitz in his story for one reason only.
“Because,” he wrote, “purchasing views, likes and followers is not right.”