In today’s social media environment, there is no greater capital than a follow.
More “likes” mean more engagement, and more engagement—for some people, such as influencers—can mean more money and ad revenue.
The hunger for eyeballs has birthed a whole industry of so-called click farms, where people are hired to watch videos, like posts, and follow pages—often on multiple devices and through fake accounts.
In China, it’s very easy to buy clicks. A quick search on Taobao, China’s Amazon, will yield thousands of results advertising “Facebook likes.”
(Taobao is a product of Alibaba, which also owns the South China Morning Post, the parent company of Goldthread.)
It’s gotten so bad that Facebook recently sued four Chinese companies for selling fake Facebook and Instagram accounts. The lawsuit is one of the biggest pushbacks by a Western social media platform against alleged click farms in China.
But China is just one of many countries known to host click farms for foreign platforms. Companies in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines have also sold clicks to Western buyers.
How it works
Buying Facebook and Instagram likes can be quite cheap.
On Taobao, 100 followers on Facebook and Instagram can cost between $1.50 and $3. An additional $223 and $300 can get 10,000 followers on Facebook and Instagram.
As for me, I wanted more Twitter followers, but Twitter is a bit trickier and more expensive—a hundred followers cost $5.30—because the platform declared a war on bots last year. Millions of accounts were reportedly banned in a span of a few months.
The companies that sell fake followers advertise themselves as “overseas website marketing and promotion firms.”
They use powerful computers to string together thousands of phone cards to create fake engagement.
Click farms are also known to hack into other smartphones to hijack traffic.
Fake web traffic isn't just for boosting the number of followers; you can also buy five-star reviews for your store on Google Maps.
“It's been 10 days and it's relatively stable,” one satisfied customer wrote on the profile of a Taobao account selling fake Twitter followers. “The number of fans did not drop. Buyers’ after-sales service is excellent.”
In response to a request for comment, Facebook referred us to this statement, which reads, "We hope to reinforce that this kind of fraudulent activity is not tolerated – and that we’ll act forcefully to protect the integrity of our platform."
Twitter and Alibaba did not provide a comment.
Fighting a black market
The irony of these click farms is that they operate in a country where these platforms are banned.
Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are blocked in China, though many people access the platforms through VPN services. Despite not being able to officially access these sites, Chinese companies are still some of the biggest buyers of ads on them.
Sales from China account for nearly 10 percent of Facebook’s global ad revenue, making it the second-biggest buyer of ads after the United States, according to Brian Wieser, an analyst at Pivotal Research.
In China, the concern about fake viewers led the government last year to impose a penalty of up to 2 million yuan ($300,000) for fraud related to social media. The Netflix of China, iQiyi, has stopped counting views as a popularity metric.
In the meantime, my Taobao seller seems to have kept his promise: I got 56 new followers by the end of the day.
But don’t worry, Goldthread as a whole does not buy any fake views or followers ;D
Adapted from an article first published in Abacus.