Recently, Facebook got into hot water with investors when it was revealed that as many of its 1.18 billion active users 14.1 million (and likely orders of magnitude more) were fraudulent. Things are even worse at Twitter, where Italian security researchers Andrea Stroppa and Carlo De Micheli found that of the social network's 232 million monthly active users about 20 million are fake and for sale, while Jason Ding of Barracuda Labs said 10% of more of all Twitter accounts are fake.
Welcome to the world of click farms, where nothing is what it seems, and where social networking participants spend millions of dollars to appear more important, followed, prestigious, cool, or generally "liked" than they really are.
Social networking has been the "it" thing for a while: for the networks it makes perfect sense because they are merely the aggregators and distributors of terrabytes of free, third party created content affording them multi-billion dollar valuations without generating a cent in profits (just think of the upside potential in having 10 times the world's population on any given publicly-traded network), while for users it provides the opportunity to be seen, to be evaluated or "liked" on one's objective, impartial merits and to maybe go "viral", potentially making money in the process. Of course, the biggest draws of social networks also quickly became their biggest weaknesses, and it didn't take long to game the weakest link: that apparent popularity based on the size of one's following or the number of likes, which usually translates into power and/or money, is artificial and can be purchased for a price.
But it is not only sport stars with chips on their shoulder, or fading move and music gods who are willing to dish out in order to get the fake adoration and fake fans: as the AP reports, 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 to more than 2.5 million from about 10,000.
Various other, more expected account "paddings" come from a recent check on Facebook showed Dhaka was the most popular city for many, including soccer star Lionel 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.
Again: no surprise. AP summarizes it as follows: "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."
Sadly, for increasingly more participants, it is all a game of illusions. 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."
What is the source of this social networking fakery? One place is Dhaka, Bangladesh, a city of 7 million in South Asia, and 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.
What is worse, the cost of fake fame is so low, virtually everyone does it:
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 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 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.
The bottom line is simple "The illusion of a massive following is often just that," 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.
And once the prevailing users of social networks grasp that one of the main driving features of the current social networking fad du jour is nothing but a big cash scam operating out of a basement in the far east, expect both Facebook and shortly thereafter, Twitter, to go the way of 6 Degrees, Friendster and MySpace, only this time the bagholders will be the public. Because "it is never different this time." The only certain thing: someone will promptly step in to replace any social network that quietly fades into the sunset.