Celebrities, businesses and even the US Department of State 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.
However, 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 half a cent per click, Web sites 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, Illinois, social media marketing firm that weeds out phony online engagements.
Italian security researchers and bloggers Andrea Stroppa and Carla De Micheli estimated last year that sales of fake Twitter followers have the potential to bring in US$40 million to US$360 million to date, and that fake Facebook activities bring in US$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. However, each time they crack down on one, another, more creative scheme emerges.
Dhaka, Bangladesh, a city of 7 million, 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.
Last year, the US 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 US$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 US 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 US$12.95. InstagramEngine sells 1,000 followers for US$12. AuthenticHits sells 1,000 SoundCloud plays for US$9.
It is a lucrative business, the president and CEO of WeSellLikes.com said.