They say that money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy likes, views, shares, or followers. From the beginning of social media, users have sought to expand their networks for professional clout, financial gain, or even bragging rights amongst friends. Social media companies have used this engagement to enhance their value. The rise of social networking has fuelled a global race to gobble up as many endorsements as possible. The appetite to increase tallies on sites such as Facebook and Twitter has spawned a new industry as brokers attempt to capitalize on the phenomenon by hawking likes and followers, which social media companies struggle to police. Schemes include click farms, where low-paid workers are paid to repeatedly click the “like” button, view videos or retweet links, while support can also be given by fake profiles or genuine accounts hijacked by hackers and used to endorse profiles without their owners’ knowledge. Celebrities, businesses, and even the US State Department have bought bogus Facebook likes, Twitter followers, and YouTube views to inflate a social media presence.
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 persistently pursuing the buyers and brokers of fake clicks. Many of these programs created by brokers of click farms are bot-generated. The process involves millions of fake profiles and accounts automated to like or follow the buyer. Social media companies have created means of monitoring bot-generated clicks, but for every click farm that is dissolved another more creative scheme emerges.
Unique IT World is a Dhaka-based social media promotion firm. Its CEO, Shaiful Islam, pays workers to manually click on clients’ social media pages, making it harder for Facebook, Google and others to catch them; Shaiful Islam ruefully says that “the accounts …[are] genuine”. Indeed, a current check on Facebook puts Dhaka as the city where most likes and followers are created. Facebook estimated as many as 14.1 million of its 1.18 billion active users are fraudulent accounts, and has an uphill battle identifying real users. For LinkedIn spokesman Doug Madey buying connections dilutes the member experience, violates user agreements, and prompts account closures. And even if it were true, as Twitter’s Jim Prosser argues, that there is no upside for infringers (as in the end they run out of money and lose followers) their actions, while they last, are manipulative and certainly not business-neutral.
YouTube wiped out millions of music videos in Dec. 2012 after auditors found views had been grossly exaggerated. After an internal audit, there was speculation of foul play all over, spilling into Sony Music, Universal Music, and Google—all joint-venture owners of VEVO. In effect, on Jan. 2013, Lady Gaga was stripped of 156 million YouTube views from her VEVO Channel and the removal appeared to be part of a broad clean up of bot generated views at YouTube. After the purge, a former YouTube employee who used the alias ‘Spk’ was allegedly connected to VEVO. Spk claimed to have an empire of bots that inflated views on various video games such as Diablo 3 and social media sites including Twitter and Reddit; he said his views bot was so successful that Google asked him to use it for VEVO back when the music conglomerate first started putting content on YouTube. “I had to sit there and bot videos with millions and millions [of views]…[for]more than 20,000 videos.” In 2009, Spk started his own botting business (“I am doing nothing different, just working for myself”). He currently employs 15 people, and his most notable hire is botting reseller Tapangoldy.
YouTube has refused to comment on Spk’s history at VEVO. It will only say that it paid Spk handsomely for addressing an internal security issue, and in fact Spk is listed in Google’s Hall of Fame Security Site. In the meantime, new evidence of the boosting of artificial likes is making headlines. Kanye West’s video “Heartless”, for example, gained 33 million views in one day which Spk, again, claimed he botted per YouTube’s request. By comparison, “Gangnam Style”, the most popular video in YouTube history, never saw more than 3 million views a day. Further, all of Britney Spears’s music videos that aired before the creation of VEVO were likely botted. The artist’s 2005 hit, “Toxic” received more than 30 million views in a 24-hour period—again making it suspicious. View data for The Backstreet Boys and N’SYNC music videos point to a similar story. Lady Gaga’s first hit “Just Dance”, which was uploaded to VEVO after the song had already made the rounds on radio, television, and the pop charts, was surely inflated because views there were later purged.
Google’s minority stake in VEVO could partly explain VEVO’s actions. The VEVO channels charge the highest rates of any advertisers in YouTube, and a large volume of views rakes in more money. Videos with more views also are ranked higher in search engines, therefore, raising the ranking of VEVO content and facilitating the channels as a music video powerhouse. Both factors helped Sony and Universal Music too. Now, bad publicity is slowing the practice and not least because Spk’s disclosures raise advertisers’ wrath about payments made on false pretenses.
The buyers of fake likes or pretend followers are common folk too, not just musicians or celebrities. But the impact of this trade is impacting independent musicians more than anyone else in the business. After all, indie artists are told that their web presence and projection is key to their initial marketing efforts. Earlier this year, Facebook made changes to their algorithm limiting the reach of liked pages for certain sites. If a musician with 1,000 likes were to post content ‘organically’, the post would only reach up to about half of their followers. This troublesome change was made to entice page administrators to pay Facebook to promote their page and “boost” posts. Many indie brands, and musicians, were affected and have refused to pay more for advertising. Moreover, according to a report in The Guardian, as of 2015 Facebook will be reducing the amount of ‘overly promotional’ posts in users’ news feeds; posts that aren’t paid ads will become less visible. In the future, it seems an artist wishing to promote a new album or creating an ingenious buzz for a tour may no longer be able to do so free of charge.
This suggests that access to social media is being commoditized more and more. Further, pollution in social media is a special concern for it means that the odds are ultimately being stacked against stand-alone musicians who believe in the premise that new media and technology can level the playing field. By and large, and except for Spotify, investors today are not taking much risk with recorded music. Nor are they building markets for talent as they once did. If the innocence of a like is suspect, it will be harder for aspiring musicians and all emerging artists to de-risk themselves and trade their wares in front of potential investors.
By Christopher D’Amico
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