It’s the middle of the growing season for many farmers, but “click farmers” operate best in the dark.
In the sketchier corners of the internet, anyone looking to artificially boost their social media stats can purchase Facebook Likes, YouTube views, and Twitter followers by the thousands. Desperate business owners will purchase all manner of counterfeit data to rack up phony metrics.
The Week gained access to one of these black market click farms. In a barbed-wire-rimmed pink apartment complex in the Philippines, a group of social media harvesters plant fake profiles all over the Web.
“Casipong inserts earbuds, queues up dance music, and checks her client’s’ instructions. Their specifications are often quite pointed. A São Paulo gym might request 75 female Brazilian fitness fanatics, or a bar in San Francisco’s Castro district might want 1,000 local gay men. Her current order is the most common: fake Facebook profiles of beautiful American women between the ages of 20 and 30.”
The click farm is just one of thousands in developing countries. 24/7, workers use fake name generators, proxy servers, and email addresses to create fake personas for sale.
In the past two years, the number of marketers who say Facebook is “important” or “critical” to their strategy has surged by 83%.
Unfortunately, some of them are willing to increase their social metrics by any means necessary, and experts estimate that the market for phony followers was as much as $360 million for Twitter alone in 2013. Even big name companies like Coca-Cola and Louis Vuitton have been accused of buying likes from click farms.
In the Philippines, click farms are perfectly legal, although their prevalence is hard to quantify. Max Planck Institute researchers analyzed 10 Facebook campaigns recently and determined that two-thirds of the likes were suspect.
For their part, social media sites say they’re doing all they can to weed out the fakes, but claim they’re fighting an uphill battle.