Facebook is the preferred network, used by 71 percent of online adults, or 57 percent of all American adults, according to Pew researchers.

Johannesburg - Hitting the “like” button on Facebook seems innocent enough but your likes might not be used for what you think.

A new social media scam has emerged. “Like farming” is when social media users are posting false pictures on Facebook to farm “likes”.

“Ninety-three percent of Facebook users engage in some form of 'like' behaviour monthly,” writes digital consultant Beverly Crandon in her article: “What does a like to your Facebook fan page really mean?”

The “like” button has long been used as a promotional tool for businesses, according to business community manager, Rebekah Monson. The like button has now been changed to be the Facebook substitute for “follow” or “share.” This means that any item “liked” will automatically be shared to your Facebook wall and your friend's feeds making “likes” highly sought after, so much so, that people are using back-handed methods of obtaining them for different reasons.

Some of these people are merely amused by the sheer amount of fake likes they can get. Others send you to pages you have no intention of visiting. It is even a clever marketing technique. US online company CafeMom posted “Click 'like' if you love your kids!” This post got their page over 1.3 million “likes”.

“Like farming” also involves selling these “likes” for cash. After the “likes” skyrocket to the thousands, maybe millions, they are then sold to businesses as part of a Facebook page. The business now has access to the newsfeeds of all who “liked” the picture and floods their pages with promotional material.

An advertisement on warriorforum.com reads “Facebook Fan Page for sale! With 100 000+ Fans! Very active page! Offers Start at $200.” The pictures used to get these “likes” reveal nothing of these intentions.

“Like farmers” claim that your “like” will help gain a donation to a charitable cause. Others show a mysterious picture. “Like or comment and see what happens” appears below the image. Users click “like” but nothing seems to happen. “Like if you hate cancer, ignore if you don't” is another post spammed to thousands of newsfeeds.

In 2012, a photo of a young girl with the caption “This is my sister Mallory. She has Down syndrome and doesn't think she's beautiful. Please like this photo so I can show her later that she truly is beautiful” appeared on Facebook.

This photo was, in fact, a picture of nine year old Katie Johnson, not Mallory. Her photo had been stolen and was used to get “likes.”

Katie's mother, Terri Johnson, said “the reality that someone would exploit our daughter and her special needs for facebook 'likes' was nonsensical and surreal.”

Johnson attempted to report the scam to facebook but she was ignored. According to Johnson, there is little protection the law offers for cyber impersonation.

Another post involved United States Marine sergeant Merlin German. In 2005, 97 percent percent of his body was burnt in an explosion in Iraq. He died in 2008, but the picture of his burnt appearance lives on as a Facebook post titled “Like if you respect him, ignore if you don't respect him.”

“It's not just the fact they are polluting my newsfeed with rubbish and distracting me from the stuff I wanna see,” said search engine and social media specialist Daylan Pearce, “it's the unashamed use of terrible circumstances like cancer, or sick kids or horrific accidents that these patients usually use to get clicks that really pisses me off.”

The only solution to this problem, according to Pearce, is to not participate in promoting these posts. “If you do see a post about sick kids with rare cancer who lost all their family to a horrible house fire and if you don't like it then 100 more children will get cancer from terrorists- its not real. Don't click on it,” advised Pearce. - IOL