When Facebook admitted in January in its annual report filing that as many as 14.76 million of its 1.23 billion active users in 2013 were fake, it was only one of many statistics that indicated that not all is what it seems on social media platforms.
Italian security researchers Andrea Stroppa and Carlo De Micheli estimated in a 2013 analysis that approximately 20 million of Twitter’s 232 million monthly active users were fake and up for sale.
Twitter puts the figure at 5 percent of its active users. Regardless of the exact number, what is not in dispute is that businesses that sell fake Twitter followers and manipulate Facebook and other social media platforms’ popularity statistics have turned into a multimillion-dollar industry.
The explosion of social media use has created an artificial world where anyone from sports stars and celebrities to corporations can pay for “likes” and “followers” to appear more popular and important.
Celebrities are at it to revive a career in decline, unknown musicians pay for Soundcloud plays to generate interest from record labels, and professionals may simply want to appear more “connected” and “endorsed” on LinkedIn.
The desire to claim fake friends in the social realm has even affected the U.S. State Department. AP reported that the agency spent as much as $630,000 to boost its online figures. While the 2.5 million Facebook fans certainly make the agency look more important than the 10,000 previously, the value of 400,000 “likes” in Cairo is less the result of U.S. political interference in the Arab Spring than it is due to the work of click farms, a new form of social media promotion companies.
Cairo is just one of many places where social media promotion firms have flourished. Most are based in places like Dhaka in Bangladesh, Hyderabad in India, and various other South Asian countries that combine the availability and popularity of social media with cheap labor.
Some firms use fake accounts and software-generated social media activity to boost the numbers for their clients. But Facebook and Google have developed software programs to weed out those bot-generated ratings.
In response, social media promotion companies now pay workers to manually click on the social media pages of clients. The click farm workers typically are paid as little as $1 for 1,000 Facebook “likes.”
The promotion firms, in turn, sell the fake following at many multiples of the costs.
Weselllikes.com, for instance, sells 10,000 Facebook likes for $99.99 and 50,000 for $299.99. If the fake support should come from a specific location such as the U.S., rather than, say, Pakistan, the price rises to $399.99 for 10,000 “USA Facebook Likes.”
Followersboosts.com offers 50,000 YouTube views for $99 and 100,000 Twitter followers for $399. Click farms even offer daily re-tweets and other types of “engagement” such as comments on posts to generate the illusion of activity on a client’s social media profile.
Similar services exist for other widely used social media platforms like Instagram, LinkedIn or Google+.
Most businesses and clients are completely aware that none of those paid users who like a Facebook page or follow a Twitter account have any real interest in their organization and what it does or offers.
Although the activity on a profile such as comments on posts or re-tweets, termed “engagement” in social media parlance, is the actual lifeblood of social media profiles and much more important than the pure number of followers, some businesses are concerned that potential customers and business partners may be less than impressed if they visit a social media site and only see a handful of contacts or “thumbs up.”
So click farm workers keep busy watching YouTube videos, re-tweeting comments, endorsing a client’s professional expertise on LinkedIn and clicking the Facebook “like” button to inflate social media profiles.
What’s the harm?
The downside of this activity is that not only is it unethical and in some cases fraudulent, for example when advertisers have to pay more on the basis of false and inflated social media data, the actual engagement for genuine users or fans might decline. And the “organic reach,” as opposed to “paid reach,” to truly interested parties can fade.
The big social media companies, like Google, Facebook or LinkedIn, whose image and business model is based on genuine, active and engaged users of their platforms, claim they are fighting back against manipulation by deleting fake profiles.
Firms like Facebook have much to lose. Not only is the user experience diluted by fake clicks and comments, they also affect the success and viability of the promotional services offered by Facebook, such as Facebook page suggestions and Facebook advertising.
Derek Muller, creator of the education science channel Veratisium on YouTube, tested the effect of Facebook advertising on his personal page.
While he gained new followers very quickly, with “likes” growing from 2,000 to 75,000 in no time, he found many of them looked suspicious because they “liked” hundreds and in some cases even thousands of pages, most came from developing countries and the vast majority were particularly disengaged.
If anything, the engagement on his Facebook profile was declining. Typically Facebook sends out any new post of a page owner to some of the users who “liked” the page to gauge their engagement in terms of liking, commenting or sharing the post, before sending the post to more Facebook users. The higher the engagement the more the post is circulated.
Increasing the number of likes of a page with fake likes may thus result in less engagement overall because the post will initially go out to more disengaged, fake fans.
Muller believes, Facebook does not really mind because it can sell its services twice, he says in his video. “Facebook has generated significant ad revenue from likes that were not genuine, which then suppressed the reach of the pages that had low engagement forcing those pages to pay again to reach inauthentic fans.”
Facebook users reported similar issues with “suggested posts” or “suggested pages” ads, which promised to suggest pages to users that have stated corresponding interests in their profile.
Although users were happy with the growth in “likes” they noticed a significant downturn in the quality of the new audience.
The new fans even commented on the page, but most of the comments turned out to be meaningless gibberish. And most of them came from countries known for click farms.
In other words, page owners had the same experience they would have had with paying for fake likes, and to genuine fans of the page it would look as though they actually had.
The reason this is happening is because click farms workers have started to click on pages they have not been paid to like, to remain undetected by Facebook’s fraud algorithms when they like pages of paying clients.
After all, the abundance of activity makes distinguishing fake likes from genuine likes and comments that much more difficult.
The problem for the profile owners is that fake likes cannot be deleted in bulk, an issue that has spawned a new industry which promises to get rid of the fake friends that may do more harm than good.