A while back, we noted that those social media friends and followers who think we are cool might not exist. For some people, that’s no problem. They will settle for the appearance of popularity, so they turn to a click farm. From the The Guardian:
How much do you like courgettes? According to one Facebook page devoted to them, hundreds of people find them delightful enough to click the “like” button – even with dozens of other pages about courgettes to choose from.
There’s just one problem: the liking was fake, done by a team of low-paid workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, whose boss demanded just $15 per thousand “likes” at his “click farm”. Workers punching the keys might be on a three-shift system, and be paid as little as $120 a year.
The New Republic recently followed a Philippine click farm worker Kim Casipong, whose job creating fake Facebook friends pays quite well for Lapu Lapu City:
A São Paulo gym might request 75 female Brazilian fitness fanatics, or a Castro-district bar might want 1,000 gay men living in San Francisco. Her current order is the most common: Facebook profiles of beautiful American women between the ages of 20 and 30. Once they’ve received the accounts, the client will probably use them to sell Facebook likes to customers looking for an illicit social media boost.
The search string Buy Facebook likes will introduce us to this world—and its detractors— quickly. It’s almost real:
Casipong plays her role in hijacking the currencies of social media—Facebook likes, Twitter followers—by performing the same routine over and over again. She starts by entering the client’s specifications into the website Fake Name Generator, which returns a sociologically realistic identity: Ashley Nivens, 21, from Nashville, Tennessee, now a student at New York University who works part time at American Apparel. (“Ashley Nivens” is a composite based on Casipong’s standard procedures, not the name of an actual person or account.) She then creates an email account. The email address forms the foundation of Ashley Nivens’s Facebook account, which is fleshed out with a profile picture from a photo library that Braggs’s workers have compiled by scraping dating sites. The whole time, a proxy server makes it seem as though she is accessing the Internet from Manhattan, and software disables the cookies that Facebook uses to track suspicious activity.
Next, she inserts a SIM card into a Nokia cell phone, a pre-touch-screen antique that’s been used so much the digits on its keypad have worn away. Once the phone is live, she types its number into Nivens’s Facebook profile and waits for a verification code to arrive via text message. She enters the code into Facebook and—voilà!—Ashley Nivens is, according to Facebook’s security algorithms, a real person. The whole process takes about three minutes.
Most click farms are based in developing countries where people will work long hours for low pay, constructing first world people to whom it is worth advertising—if they existed. Naturally, firms that want to make real money rather than virtual money are put off by all this, but it’s a legal grey area. Click farms are legal in the Philippines (just one example). Elsewhere in the global economy, laws are a patchwork.
How prevalent is faking friends and likes? Recently, Max Planck Institute researchers ran ten Facebook ad campaigns, and came up with 1,867 of the 2,767 likes garnered (two-thirds) as apparently “illegitimate.” Similarly, as the New Republic tells it,
In 2014, Harvard University’s Facebook fans were most engaged in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (They stated that they did not pay for likes.) A 2012 article in The New York Times suggested that as much as 70 percent of President Obama’s 19 million Twitter followers were fake. (His campaign denied buying followers.)
Of course, there is a subtle but important distinction between the claim that the followers are fake and the claim that they were purchased by the campaign.
According to Martha Mendoza at Huffington Post,
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.
Spokespersons for social media like Facebook and Twitter say that they try to stop the flood tide of fakes, but it is difficult to do battle against vanity, greed, and ambition across the globe 24/7, even assuming that they are as committed as they claim.
So the fabulous fakes click and tweet on. From Mendoza again,
In Indonesia, a social media-obsessed country with some of the largest number of Facebook pages and Twitter users, click farms proliferate.
Ali Hanafiah, 40, offers 1,000 Twitter followers for $10 and 1 million for $600. He owns his own server, and pays $1 per 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.”
A silver lining in the cloud: If we have friends or teens who are social media-obsessed, we can allow them to know about the click farms. With all its faults, the real world offers one advantage: We can only be popular with people who exist. That might turn out to be worth something in the long run. 😉
See also: Are Facebook friends replacing real friends? (the Dunbar number)
You’re not alone in having fake new media friends. Science researchers do too. (In some cases, it is not accidental.)
Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.