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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Money can’t buy you love, but on Facebook it can buy you likes for anything

In a world where a business’s social media clout is measured by the number of followers it has on Twitter and the number of “likes” on Facebook, it’s not surprising some game the system for profit. On Twitter you can buy followers — the going rate is $13 per 1,000 new followers. On Facebook brands can pay third party companies called “click farms,” usually populated by people in low-wage nations, who will “like” their public page for pennies a click.

Last night I came across a video from Veritasium, an Australian video blog with nearly 1.3 million followers on YouTube presented by Sydney-based physicist and TV presenter Derek Muller, who has pulled back the curtain to reveal that even real engagement brands pay Facebook for directly, isn’t that engaged at all.

Happenstance led Muller into investigating a phenomenon where page likes aren’t driven strictly by organic engagement and brand sentiment but rather these ‘click farms.’ In some ways it recalls the struggle Google has had with click fraud, where legions of people would click on ads to generate ad revenue for websites using AdSense. The problem has spread beyond ads and to Google offerings as disparate as Google Shopping and Google Play.

In May 2012, Muller says he received a series of $50 vouchers to promote his fan page for Veritasium. After spending these he noticed page likes skyrocketing while engagement plummeted. Today, Muller says Veritasium has 135,000 likes on Facebook. Because of his ad campaign, seventy-five percent of these are from India, Egypt, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Only one percent of these fans have engaged with his content, where conversely engagement rates from other countries bounce between 20 and 60 percent.

Click farms like, which Muller says pay people around $1 for every 1,000 things they like on Facebook, offer a brand chunks of likes on a platter; $120 will get you 2,000 international likes, $340 will get you 2,000 likes States-side. Facebook has nothing to do with this transaction and disavows click farms from its platform.

And anyway, Miller had paid money to Facebook, not a click farm, to be connected with genuine people. Instead, he found was purchasing a stack of fans that felt similarly fake.

To see if he could get around this, Muller created a fake shell for a fansite called Virtual Cat. Its welcome message read, “Here we’ll post only the worst, most annoying drivel you can imagine. Only an idiot would like this page.” He put $25 into an ad campaign that only targeted countries outside of the reputed click farm territory: Australia, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

It didn’t make a difference. He imagined that no sane person would like his new page. Instead, it got 262 likes, all from his chosen territories, from mostly North American accounts that had liked thousands of disconnected things and seemed not to have engaged with his shell of a page at all.

Facebook has been waging an ongoing battle with fakery, deleting 83 million fake accounts in August 2012. Yet in its latest financial report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, it revealed that between 5.5 and 11.2 percent of its 1.3 billion accounts were fake. That’s between 67.7 million and 137.8 million people, which on the high end would make it the 8th largest country by population in the world.

So the vulnerabilities Muller exposes – with marketplace ads also being its lowest grade of advertising product – are not surprising. While the clickers may be faked, however, the implications are real, going to the heart of Facebook’s credibility as a marketing platform for business.

The idea that an ad will reach a living, breathing user, and that the clicks and likes an advertiser pays for are genuine, underpins the entire system of social advertising. Real engagement makes the wheels spin. Twitter and LinkedIn’s stock got hit bad when theirs fell. Facebook benefited when its rose. In the company’s recent earning announcement, Mark Zuckerberg crowed that engagement in December 2013 was up 59 percent on the year before.

As Muller says in his video, this technique isn’t just disingenuous in devaluing the worth of the whole system, it also inflates company revenue by creating a hamster wheel that requires you throw more and more money at to get the same results.

If you have a page and post something, the content goes to a small portion of your supporters. If a good amount of that first lot engages the content gets pushed wider again. If the people who like the page are clicking thousands of things with little regard, they won’t be paying attention to your content and you’re going to have to pay even more money to promote it to reach the same amount of people.

I’m always suspicious of taking news from YouTube at its word and having some experience with Facebook advertising in the past, I decided to replicate what Muller had done step-by-step and see for myself.

Step 1. Like Muller, I created a page I wanted to appear laughably awful and mocking toward any potential liker, something so vile that only someone so completely disengaged could like it. I chose the ‘The Good Luck Chuck Appreciation Society,’ starring Dane Cook and Jessica Alba and which may be the worst movie I’ve ever seen. Anyone who ventured to the page would see the greeting: “Good Luck Chuck is the worst movie ever created in the entire world and I would not respect you for a second if you liked this page.”

Step 2. I threw $20 behind the ad, targeting people like me in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. By dinnertime my new page had 13 likes. All of the accounts appeared to be made by real, living people but had completely public profiles.

A couple of my new fans had liked a few hundred pages, but most had liked several thousand. There were strange geographic disconnections in the things they had liked that were readily apparent. My first fan from Arkansas City, Kansas had liked a Sonic restaurant from Oklahoma City, a pizza place in Eastchester, New York, a chain restaurant from Oahu, Hawaii and an independent eatery in New Mexico. Another fan from Beverly Hills expressed her appreciation for culinary delights in small towns in Washington, North Carolina, New Hampshire as well as San Francisco. And so it continued. Person after person was eating in a series of strange small towns spread from coast to coast.

The things these people previously liked didn’t make much sense either. One sports-minded fan liked the Detroit Pistons and its arch rival, the Chicago Bulls, as well as the Los Angeles Lakers and the Orlando Magic. A woman from the midwest liked both the Strong Men of God page and Urban Ink Magazine, two unlikely overlapping circles of interest.

Step 3. I was impatient and tweaked the formula, going past what Muller had done. What if I paid for a better ad? Would this get me a faster stream of dubious likes, or better quality engagement? By switching from a simple marketplace ad to a sponsored story, my ad would be run in the same old spots as it was before as well as the Facebook pages of the friends of people who had already liked it. My like count went from 13 to 39 in less than half an hour. None of these likes appeared more genuine than the first batch, but a couple of new fans wrote on my wall.

Fan 1: “Lol, what?”

Fan 2: “Good Luck Chuck is an awesome film. Dane Cook and Jessica Alba are the best. Hilarious and sh** and full of nudity, whats not to love?”

I felt slightly mortified when people wrote back to me.

Step 4. Muller deliberately targeted countries outside click farm territories, but I wanted to see what happened if I opened the gate. I threw $10 behind an ad that targeted people in the US, UK, Canada and Australia, alongside India, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Egypt. The ad was live for a quarter of an hour and my page received 66 new likes, none of them from the first four territories. It was the same story: each page had anywhere from a few hundred to many thousands of likes covering disconnected, unrelated things. Many of my new audience also weren’t using Facebook in English.

Muller’s video is filled with fascinating tidbits about the economy of empty likes driving Facebook. Last July, the Washington Post ripped the State Department after an Inspector General’s report said it had paid $630,000 to Facebook for two million likes, only two percent of which had ever engaged with State Department on the platform. A January 6 story on click farms also in the Washington Post found that both the Facebook Security and Google fan pages on Facebook have more fans in Dhaka, Bangladesh than any other city on earth.

I reached Muller by phone late in the evening. He told me from Vancouver that when he started advertising his page on Facebook, it became functionally useless to him as a platform. He had the same amount of followers on YouTube, but there fans interacted with his content like people, whereas on Facebook he felt like he had tens of thousands of ghosts following him. When he began to map the levels of engagement of his supporters by country he knew something wasn’t right.

“Why are the people liking these pages?” Muller wondered. A popular theory is that with Facebook cutting down on fake likes and click farms and making moves to protect genuine engagement with its valuable ad business, click farms have started liking a whole series of erroneous posts for free to confuse monitors and obscure traffic.

“I think Facebook has to know about this,” Muller says. “They have a plethora of data and the brightest minds working for them.”

In a statement to media yesterday, Facebook denied Muller’s hypotheses. The company has achieved the kind of “real-world results” that would “not be possible with fake likes.”

“He spent $10 and got 150 people who liked cats to like the Page. They may also like a lot of other Pages which does not mean that they are not real people – lots of real people like lots of things.” [Muller actually spent $25 for 262 likes.]

Except that it’s not that simple: 262 people liked Muller’s empty shell of a page that was aggressive toward any person that clicked on it. I promoted a page to more than 100 fans in less than two hours with the same tactic.

All of my new fans and Muller’s had liked hundreds of random things, atypical behavior displayed at an alarmingly consistent rate. “No one likes that many things,” Muller says. I surveyed a couple dozen Facebook friends. Two had amassed more than 100 likes. Most figured in the low tens. I am fairly indiscriminate with liking things and have amassed 90 likes in eight years on Facebook. One person I talked to with 125 page likes was embarrassed to have me call attention to it.

I’d paid $40 for my impromptu community of Good Luck Chuck fans. Like Muller, the least I could do would be check in on them.

“Hi there, Good Luck Chuckers. I created this page as an experiment in engagement in Facebook advertising for a story I am writing for PandoDaily. What brought you to like this page?”

Total silence. An hour later, five people had seen the post.

The system’s not totally corrupt. By upping my ad spend, a couple of people did actually engage with me. Facebook racked up $7.8 billion in revenue last year, it’s not all tainted fruit. But Muller’s hypotheses shows how the system can be gamed.

Because no matter little you paid for a like, if the social intent isn’t there, you paid too much.

Why Facebook Hates And Fights Fake Likes

Facebook is launching a campaign to rid its service of fake, or “low-quality”  likes. There are spammy businesses out there that prey on Facebook page admins with offers to get them thousands of likes to their pages.  In a blog post, Facebook site integrity engineer Matt Jones wrote that “The spammers behind fake likes have one goal — to make money off of Page owners without delivering any value in return.” He said that “They make their profit by promising and generating likes to Facebook Page administrators who typically don’t understand that fake likes won’t help them achieve their business goals.”
It’s not hard to locate these spammers. A Google search for “buy Facebook likes” yielded plenty of offers, including one company that posted an entire menu of options, including “10K Likes for $480.” For $1,200 you can buy like 50K likes.
Jones wrote that the company has a “strong incentive to aggressively go after the bad actors behind fake likes because businesses and people who use our platform want real connections and results, not fakes.” He said that businesses that buy these fake likes won’t achieve real results and “could end up doing less business on Facebook if the people they’re connected to aren’t real.” He added, “Since these fraudulent operations are financially motivated businesses, we focus our energy on making this abuse less profitable for the spammers.”

Likes are great, but only if they’re real, says Facebook
Facebook has both automated and manual systems in place to try to catch these types of fake likes, “including blocking accounts and removing fake likes all at once.” The company has also sued spammers in the past and has obtained “nearly $2 billion in legal judgments,” so far. A judgment doesn’t necessarily mean that Facebook has been able to collect from the offending businesses that it’s gone after.
Others weigh-in
Facebook isn’t alone in telling businesses to avoid fake likes. A post on Screenpush observes, “Having an overabundance of fake followers on your page can form a barrier between the content your brand posts and the genuine Facebook fans you have out there, who are actually eager to view your content and engage with it.” As Daylan Does points out, “what many page admins did not understand was that quantity was not the metric that was important with Facebook marketing, it’s all about the quality.”
Having 10,000 fans in India is great, but they’re not going to buy anything or visit you if you’re a furniture store in Sydney, Australia.
Not just Facebook
Social media spam affects other services as well. It was just as easy for me find web pages selling “Twitter TWTR +1.72% retweets” such as 10,000 retweets for $45 or 50,000 for $150. There are also spammy services that sell YouTube views and Instagram followers as well as LinkedIn LNKD +2.3% connections. In addition, there are companies that sell text-links to try to trick Google into upping the page rank of sites that are linked from other sites. A few years ago Google started punishing websites with these bogus links by reducing their own page rank, but — as a web site administrator — I still get plenty of offers from businesses wanting to pay me to place these links on my page.
Culture obsesses over popularity
We increasing live in a world where businesses, celebrities, journalists and just regular people, are judged by the number of followers, friends or likes they have accumulated. But sheer numbers of followers or likes don’t tell the real story. Even if they were obtained without paying for them, numbers don’t necessarily translate into genuine interactions whether that’s financial transactions, genuine retweets, clicks or just plain interest.
The reality is that there is a big difference between people who are genuinely interested in what you have to say, versus those you have simply “collected” by whatever means are at your disposal.
(Disclosure:  I serve as co-director of, a non-profit Internet safety organization that receives financial support from Facebook, Google and other companies).

How Facebook Likes Get Bought And Sold

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Celebrities, businesses and even the U.S. State Department 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 Associated Press 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 capitalizing on the opportunity to make millions of dollars by duping social media.
For as little as a half 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, CEO of seoClarity, a Des Plaines, Ill., 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 to $360 million to date, and that fake Facebook activities bring in $200 million 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 CEO of Dhaka-based social media promotion firm Unique IT World said he has 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.
In 2013, the 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 criticized 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 Federal Trade Commission and several state attorney generals 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 a lucrative business, said the president and CEO of
"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.
Those accounts, he said, "enable us to create many fake followers."
During an interview at a downtown Jakarta cafe, Hanafiah — wearing a Nike cap, blue jeans and a white T-shirt — said large social networks can boost a business' 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-based Status People, helps clients block fakes. "We have had a lot of people who have bought fake accounts, realized 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 based in Emeryville, Calif., said that buying clicks to promote clients is a grave error. "It's bad business," he said, "and if an advertiser ever found out you did that, they'd never do business with you again."