Selling social media clicks becomes big business

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Celebrities, businesses and even
the U.S. State Department 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.
But 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.
Italian security researchers
and bloggers Andrea Stroppa and Carla De Micheli estimated in 2013 that
sales of fake Twitter followers have the potential to bring in $40
million to $360 million to date, and that fake Facebook activities bring
in $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. But each time they crack down on one,
another, more creative scheme emerges.
When software engineers
wrote computer programs, for example, to generate lucrative fake clicks,
tech giants fought back with software that screens out "bot-generated"
clicks and began regularly sweeping user accounts.
YouTube wiped
out billions of music industry video views last December after auditors
found some videos apparently had exaggerated numbers of views. Its
parent-company, Google, is also constantly battling people who generate
fake clicks on their ads.
And Facebook, whose most recent
quarterly report estimated as many as 14.1 million of its 1.18 billion
active users are fraudulent accounts, does frequent purges. That’s
particularly important for a such a company that was built on the
principle that users are real people.
Twitter’s Jim Prosser said
there’s no upside. "In the end, they’re accounts are suspended, they’re
out the money and they lose the followers," he said.
LinkedIn
spokesman Doug Madey said buying connections "dilutes the member
experience," violates their user agreement and can also prompt account
closures.
Google and YouTube "take action against bad actors that seek to game our systems," said
spokeswoman Andrea Faville.
Dhaka, Bangladesh, a city of 7 million in South Asia, 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.
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 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 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 $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 one of the world’s
largest number of Facebook pages and Twitter users, click farms are
proliferating.
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."
During
an interview at a downtown Jakarta cafe, Hanafiah — wearing a Nike cap,
blue jeans and a white T-shirt — said large social networks can boost a
business’ public profile. "Today, we are living in a tight competition
world that is forcing people to compete with many tricks," he 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.
"The illusion of a massive following is often just that," he said.
The fake click market has generated another business: auditors.
Robert
Waller, founder of London-based Status People, helps clients block
fakes. "We have had a lot of people who have bought fake accounts,
realized it’s a stupid idea and they’re looking for ways to get rid of
them," he said.
David Burch, at TubeMogul, a video marketing firm
based in Emeryville, Calif., said buying clicks to promote clients is a
grave error. "It’s bad business," he said, "and if an advertiser ever
found out you did that, they’d never do business with you again."

Associated
Press reporters Julhas lam in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Ali Kotarumalos and
Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia contributed to this story.

Follow Martha Mendoza at https://twitter.com/mendozamartha
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