Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Social media advertising is big business these days, so it’s perhaps no surprise that advertising click fraud is on the rise as well. Simply put, massive click farms employing hundreds or even thousands of employees in one location can quickly add views, followers, or likes to just about any social media account – and sometimes within a matter of minutes. You can literally buy fake followers and fake likes for pennies on the dollar, and it’s viewed even by people who should know better – such as politicians, celebrities and musicians – as a quick and easy way to demonstrate their popularity or create the illusion of a massive new momentum wave.
But is it legit?
The big question, of course, is whether these massive click farm operations are actually legal, and if not, why companies like Facebook are not doing more to root them out and put them out of business. After all, if Facebook’s entire business model is built around advertising dollars, shouldn’t the company be paying more attention to the entire Facebook advertising ecosystem?
In the defense of Facebook, the company does say that click farms are against its official policies, and that it is doing what it can – even going so far as to employ AI-powered algorithms to spot them in the wild – to put an end to them. According to Facebook, anywhere from 0.4% to 1.2% of all Facebook accounts are actually “bot profiles” being used to generate fake likes, views, and follows.
That doesn’t seem like a huge problem, right? If 1% of all accounts are “fake,” then Facebook can reasonably claim that its advertising ecosystem is still legitimate. Sure, a Facebook ad might generate 10 fake likes by “accident,” but the other 990 likes are good to go. So why are advertisers complaining about click farms?
A big problem getting bigger
The answer, quite simply, is that the click farm problem is probably far worse than anyone would like to admit publicly. Nobody wants to admit that one-half or more of all their followers are fake, or that a YouTube video that went viral only did so thanks to a huge army of low-wage workers in emerging nations, where workers are paid just $1 for every 1,000 likes they can generate. By some estimates, one-third of all website traffic is “fake,” generated by bots rather than humans.
Watch enough YouTube videos, and you can start to grasp the immensity of some of these click farm operations – they can have anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 phones connected at one time, meaning that a request to generate “likes” on a video or status update can instantly create the illusion of popularity. And, in the world of social media, likes attract likes. Once people think something is “trending,” they want to get in on it too. So a small-time brand can “blow up” by creating the illusion that it has a hot new product for consumers.
Implications of click farms for social media
But, over time, all of those fake likes and followers can backfire. And that’s why advertisers are miffed now. Once they’ve acquired hundreds or thousands of followers, there’s no guarantee of any future engagement. And Facebook will only show ads to people if it thinks people are clicking on them. So if your fake bots aren’t clicking, Facebook will interpret this to mean that your ads are not very popular, and will stop showing them to other people.
Now, imagine yourself as a social media account manager at an agency – the last thing you want to get is a frantic message from one of your clients, asking why their latest ad campaign is such a bust. Faced with that dilemma, isn’t there an incentive for the account manager to once again fudge facts by buying up a few likes and followers (discreetly, of course, wink wink) to show that a campaign is finally starting to gain traction?
The big picture here is that social media has become a huge popularity contest and there is every incentive in the world for people to “game” the system. And that’s especially true for influencers, who are only able to succeed if they can continue to show everyone how popular they are. It’s just human nature, because we all like to keep score, and that’s perhaps why the click farm problem is so hard to root out once and for all.