After Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg earlier this week confirmed allegations that the company had sold at least $100,000 of ads to a Russia-backed troll farm – igniting a firestorm of liberal sanctimony as pundits like Rachel Maddow proclaimed that they had finally found the “smoking gun” proving that Russians had swayed the election in President Trump’s favor – researchers at the University of Iowa have pulled back the curtain on the seedy underbelly of Facebook's illicit influence-peddling economy.
In a study reported by USA Today, the researchers described a thriving ecosystem of websites that allow users to generate millions of fake "likes" and comments. Working with a computer scientist at Facebook and one in Lahore, Pakistan, the team discovered a thriving community of 50 sites offering free, fake "likes" for users' posts in exchange for access to their accounts, which were used to falsely "like" other sites in turn.
The results have been staggeringly effective:
“The scientists found that these “collusion networks” run by spammers have managed to harness the power of one million Facebook accounts, producing as many as 100 million fake "likes" on the systems between 2015 and 2016.”
Why is this a problem? The answer is simple economics. As USA Today explains, Facebook’s algorithm is designed to favor posts that garner a lot of likes, amplifying their visibility and possibly driving legitimate engagement. Many social media “influencers” rely on their followings to justify marketing partnerships with brands and other lucrative deals.
And in what the researchers described as a recent development, the scammers have found a way to “turbocharge” the process by automatically looping in third-party applications like Spotify. Previously, this process had to be done manually in resulted in far fewer likes.
After joining the community, users who are in good standing can essentially generate likes and engagement on demand.
“When you become part of this network, you can say ‘Give me likes on this post and as soon as you request it, you get thousands of likes on a specific post,” said Zubair Shafiq, a professor of computer science at the University of Iowa in Iowa City who documented the automated networks.”
“Users think it’s relatively benign, but actually they’re handing over full control of their Facebook account,” said Shafiq.
“They can also access all the information that’s available on your profile, see your posts, get your friends list, even read your private messages. We can't tell if this information is being collected and sold to others,” he said.
In another example of the company’s penchant for dissembling, Facebook told USA Today it had stamped out the type of activity described in the research. The company added that it is investigating smaller-volume techniques that could be used for a similar purpose, and said it would take every action necessary to ensure that all activity on its platform, which the company claims has more than 2 billion monthly active users.
But an independent investigation by USA Today promptly confirmed that Facebook’s claim was bulls---.
“However at least some similar techniques still function as USA TODAY was able to join one of the networks and get 50 likes on a post to a newly-created Facebook page within one minute.
The services operate outside of the United States but hide their locations. They also disguise the fact that people who use them are engaged in activity prohibited by Facebook.”
Compounding the ridiculousness of Facebook’s denial, USA Today also found that the sites operate relatively openly.
“The sites operate openly, and researchers found them by entering a Google search for phrases such as "Page Liker." Among the 50 so-called collusion networks listed researchers listed was djliker.com, which described itself as "a social marketing system that will increase likes, comments and increase visits to pages.”
The sites rely on a “freemium” business model, profiting off of ads posted on their sites, but also from subscription fees from power users.
“Their business model is basic: They make their money by posting ads on their sites and also selling "premium" services that allow users to get even more "likes" than they allow their regular users. Some also allow users to create fake comments that can be added to the post of their choice.”
The research will be presented at the Association for Computing Machinery Internet Measurement Conference in London in November. Nektarios Leontiadis, one of the study’s authors, is a threat research scientist at Facebook.