Wed, Aug 07, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Social media ‘likes’ may be fake

‘Click farms’ generating thousands of fake Facebook ‘likes’ and Twitter followers could be misleading consumers and netizens as a whole, an investigation found

By Charles Arthur  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

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 is just one problem: The liking was fake, done by a team of low-paid workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, whose boss demanded just US$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 US$120 a year.

The ease with which a humble vegetable could win approval calls into question the basis on which many modern companies measure success online — through Facebook likes, YouTube video views and Twitter followers.

British Channel 4 television’s Dispatches program on Monday revealed the extent to which click farms risk eroding user confidence in what had looked like an objective measure of social online approval. The disclosures could hurt Facebook as it tries to persuade firms away from advertising on Google and to use its own targeted advertising, and to chase “likes” as a measure of approval.

That particular Facebook page on courgettes was set up by the program makers to demonstrate how click farms can give Web properties spurious popularity.

“There’s a real desire amongst many companies to boost their profile on social media, and find other customers as well as a result,” said Graham Cluley, an independent security consultant.

The importance of “likes” is considerable with consumers: 31 percent will check ratings and reviews, including “likes” and Twitter followers, before they choose to buy something, research suggests. That means click farms could play a significant role in potentially misleading consumers.

Dispatches found one boss in Bangladesh who boasted of being “king of Facebook” for his ability to create accounts and then use them to create hundreds or thousands of fake “likes.”

Click farms have become a growing challenge for companies which rely on social media measurements — meant to indicate approval by real users — to estimate the popularity of their products.

For the workers, though, it is miserable work, sitting at screens in dingy rooms facing a blank wall, with windows covered by bars and sometimes working through the night. For that, they could have to generate 1,000 “likes” or follow 1,000 people on Twitter to earn US$1.

Sam DeSilva, a lawyer specializing in IT and outsourcing law at Manches LLP in Oxford, says of the fake clicks: “Potentially, a number of laws are being breached — the consumer protection and unfair trading regulations. Effectively it’s misleading the individual consumers.”

Dispatches discovered an online casino which had sublicensed the Monopoly brand from its owner, the games company Hasbro, and to which fake “likes” had been added on its Facebook page.

When contacted, Hasbro contacted Facebook and the page was taken down. In a statement, Hasbro said it was “appalled to hear of what had occurred” and was unaware of the page.

Meanwhile, Dhaka-registered claims to act as a middleman to connect companies seeking to boost their profile on Facebook, Twitter, Google +1, LinkedIn and YouTube.

“We made it as simple as mouse-clicking,” the front page of the site says, claiming that it is “a crowd-sourcing platform to help you improve social media presence and search engine ranking FREE.”

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