Selling ‘likes’ is big business

Comment on this story


iol scitech pic 08 jan sa verve click farms

AP

A sign with Facebook's "Like" logo is posted at Facebook headquarters. Click farms are proliferating in Indonesia, which has one of the worlds largest number of Facebook pages and Twitter users. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

Celebrities and businesses have bought bogus Facebook likes, Twitter followers or YouTube viewers from offshore “click farms”, where workers tap, tap, tap the thumbs up button, view videos or retweet comments to inflate social media numbers.

Since Facebook launched almost 10 years ago, users have sought to expand their social networks for financial gain, winning friends, bragging rights and professional clout. And social media companies cite the levels of engagement to tout their value.

But an examination has found a growing global marketplace for fake clicks, which tech companies struggle to police. Online records, industry studies and interviews show companies are capitalising on the opportunity to make millions of dollars by duping social media.

For as little as half a cent each click, websites hawk everything from LinkedIn connections to make members appear more employable to Soundcloud plays to influence record label interest.

“Anytime there’s a monetary value added to clicks, there’s going to be people going to the dark side,” said Mitul Gandhi, chief executive of seoClarity, a US social media marketing firm that weeds out phony online engagements.

Italian security researchers and bloggers Andrea Stroppa and Carla De Micheli estimated in 2013 that sales of fake Twitter followers have the potential to bring in $40 million (R400m) to $360m to date, and that fake Facebook activities bring in $200m a year.

As a result, many firms, whose values are based on credibility, have entire teams doggedly pursuing the buyers and brokers of fake clicks. But each time they crack down on one, another, more creative scheme emerges.

When software engineers wrote computer programs, for example, to generate lucrative fake clicks, tech giants fought back with software that screens out “bot-generated” clicks and began regularly sweeping user accounts.

YouTube wiped out billions of music industry video views last December after auditors found some videos apparently had exaggerated numbers of views. Its parent-company, Google, is also constantly battling people who generate fake clicks on their ads.

And Facebook, whose most recent quarterly report estimated as many as 14.1 million of its 1.18 billion active users are fraudulent accounts, does frequent purges. That’s particularly important for a company that was built on the principle that users are real people.

Twitter’s Jim Prosser said there’s no upside. “In the end, their accounts are suspended, they’re out the money and they lose the followers,” he said.

LinkedIn spokesman Doug Madey said buying connections “dilutes the member experience”, violates their user agreement and can also prompt account closures.

Google and YouTube “take action against bad actors that seek to game our systems”, said spokeswoman Andrea Faville.

Dhaka, Bangladesh, a city of 7 million in South Asia, is an international hub for click farms.

The chief executive of Dhaka social media promotion firm Unique IT World said he had paid workers to manually click on clients’ social media pages, making it harder for Facebook, Google and others to catch them. “Those accounts are not fake, they were genuine,” Shaiful Islam said.

A recent check on Facebook showed Dhaka was the most popular city for many, including soccer star Leo Messi, who has 51 million likes; Facebook’s own security page, which has 7.7 million likes; and Google’s Facebook page, which has 15.2 million likes.

Last year, the US State Department, which has more than 400 000 likes and was recently most popular in Cairo, said it would stop buying Facebook fans after its inspector general criticised the agency for spending $630 000 to boost the numbers.

In one case, its fan tally rose from about 10 000 to more than 2.5 million.

Sometimes there are plausible explanations for click increases.

For example, Burger King’s most popular city was, for a few weeks this year, Karachi, Pakistan, after the chain opened several restaurants there.

While the US Federal Trade Commission and several state attorneys general have cracked down on fake endorsements or reviews, they have not weighed in on clicks. Meanwhile, hundreds of online businesses sell clicks and social media accounts from around the world.

BuyPlusFollowers sells 250 Google+ shares for $12.95. InstagramEngine sells 1 000 followers for $12. AuthenticHits sells 1 000 SoundCloud plays for $9.

It’s lucrative, said the president and chief executive of WeSellLikes.com.

“The businesses buy the Facebook likes because they’re afraid that when people go to their Facebook page and they only see 12 or 15 likes, they’re going to lose potential customers,” he said. The company official spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he recently moved his company offshore to avoid litigation or cease-and-desist notices.

In Indonesia, a social media-obsessed country with one of the world’s largest number of Facebook pages and Twitter users, click farms are proliferating.

Ali Hanafiah, 40, offers 1 000 Twitter followers for $10 and 1 million for $600. He owns his own server, and pays $1 a month per Internet Protocol address, which he uses to generate thousands of social media accounts.

Those accounts, he said, “enable us to create many fake followers”.

During an interview at a Jakarta cafe, Hanafiah – wearing a Nike cap, blue jeans and a white T-shirt – said large social networks could boost a business’s public profile. “Today, we are living in a tight competition world that is forcing people to compete with many tricks,” he said.

Tony Harris, who does social media marketing for major Hollywood movie firms, said he would love to be able to give his clients massive numbers of Twitter followers and Facebook fans, but buying them from random strangers is not very effective or ethical. “The illusion of a massive following is often just that,” he said.

The fake click market has generated another business: auditors.

Robert Waller, founder of London’s Status People, helps clients block fakes. “We have had a lot of people who have bought fake accounts, realised it’s a stupid idea and they’re looking for ways to get rid of them,” he said.

David Burch, at TubeMogul, a video marketing firm in Emeryville, California, said buying clicks to promote clients was a grave error. “It’s bad business,” he said, “and if an advertiser ever found out, they’d never do business with you again.”

Sapa-AP


sign up
 
 

Comment Guidelines



  1. Please read our comment guidelines.
  2. Login and register, if you haven’ t already.
  3. Write your comment in the block below and click (Post As)
  4. Has a comment offended you? Hover your mouse over the comment and wait until a small triangle appears on the right-hand side. Click triangle () and select "Flag as inappropriate". Our moderators will take action if need be.

     

Join us on

IOL-Social networks IOL-Social networks IOL-Social networks IOL-Social networks