A screenshot of a fake Twitter account created at the end of January, soon after the We Love Cities competition started on January 17.

Durban - A ghost community of Facebook and Twitter users called “The Tribe” was allegedly created by Carver Media, the company accused of faking the We Love Durban campaign, to promote paying clients and make them look more popular than they really were.

This has emerged in exclusive interviews with former Carver employees and an employee of one of their clients.

They were all too scared to be named and said they had signed confidentiality agreements with Carver Media.

They said the embattled social media company was dabbling in dubious promotion long before it was awarded the R500 000 #welovedurban contract.

Praneetha Aniruth, the owner of Carver Media, on Thursday acknowledged receipt of questions about the claims but said: “Due to the sensitive nature of these allegations we have forwarded them to our legal department.”

She has previously said: “As far as the accusations of the I Love Durban community being fake, anyone is more than welcome to look at our engagement and insights on the page. We are very real and our reach proves it.”

However, one of the former employees said it was all a smokescreen.

Initially, she had been “delighted” to land a good job with a company willing to take her on with little experience.

She soon realised she had been hired to create and maintain hundreds of Facebook and Twitter profiles and not be a copywriter as she had thought.

The fake accounts were used to manipulate the comments and ratings of Carver’s own pages as well as their paying clients.

“I didn’t know who I was any more, I would dream about these characters I had created,” she said.

For each fake person she made she created a life complete with holiday pictures collected from the internet.

“This was to make them look a little real. Everyone (working at Carver) had their favourite (fake) person.

Mine lived in New York, went to music lessons and always posted things about love and freedom.”

However, it became exhausting.

“These fake people never had a bad day and were expected to be happy all the time.”

Not only were staff tasked with running the fake community but they also had to manage comments made by real people on the various sites.

“I remember one person said, ‘This does not make sense!’ and we had to quickly take it down.”

She said she always had a feeling she was doing something illegal.

“It didn’t feel right.”

An employee from one of Carver Media’s clients said: “We were managing the company’s online presence. While our audience growth was increasing steadily on social media, our employers felt external expertise was needed.

“Carver Media recommended we use The Tribe to increase our Facebook likes and Twitter followers,” said the employee.

“This was met with great opposition from the team, who felt this was misguiding our initial audience and weren’t comfortable violating Facebook’s guidelines with fake accounts.”

However management went ahead with Carver’s plan.

“Our page likes grew overnight,” said the employee.

A second Carver Media employee said scripts were written for the fake people to play out and push certain brands.”

When Google and Facebook started flagging and deleting fake profiles a program called Mask My IP was downloaded on to all computers to hide the origin of the accounts.

“We were also given lots of SIM cards to verify extra G-mail and Facebook accounts.”

In Carver Media’s press release last week, Aniruth said: “With the allegation of creating fake profiles and using MTN SIM cards, we have not engaged in such activity.”

Paul Jacobson, a digital risk strategist and director of Web•Tech•Law, said: “Although it was slowly changing, brands still didn’t understand the difference between meaningful engagement and big numbers.

Thabo Mofikeng, an eThekwini spokesman, said there had been no new developments in their investigations into Carver Media’s alleged use of fake accounts to garner more votes in the #welovedurban campaign.

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The Mercury