Old MacDonald had a click farm ...

This month, businesses that generate fake Facebook 'likes' for money— 'click-farms'—have been in the news again. This time, politicians in India have been accused of artificially boosting the number of their online fans using this contentious method.

According to France 24, there are 4 billion likes created every day. Indeed, if you were to collect all of these likes together they'd stretch to the moon and back an incredible 8.5 times. OK, so I made the last figure up: you'll struggle to quantify likes in this way to be fair. What's more, I'm not entirely convinced about France24's 4 billion figure either: it seems a little bit too rounded to the nearest billion for my liking.

However, what is clear is that there is an unfeasible amount of 'liking' that goes on, day in and day out. Many businesses value these likes tremendously and are tempted to employ click-farms to raise their profile. Earlier on in the year, I spoke with Latitude Digital Marketing. Here's their thoughts (and indeed my thoughts) on the consequences of using click-farms as part of a business’s social media strategy.

Background

In a recent Dispatches documentary ('Celebs, Brands and Fake Fans') a team of journalists went undercover to investigate what’s real and what’s fake in the ‘brave new world’ of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. In particular, the programme highlighted the problem of click-farms in relation to Facebook brand page ‘likes’

What is click-farming?

Latitude (L): Click-farming—also known as ‘click-fraud’—is a practice that generates large volumes of clicks to a particular website or social media page. Click-farming is designed to fool users into believing a particular brand or website is much more popular than it actually is.

Why do businesses do it?

L: Social media for businesses is not easy. You have to entertain and delight. You have to add value. You have to be prepared to enter into dialogue with your audience. It will likely become a full-time role for at least one person in your organisation. It can therefore be tempting to look for shortcuts or quick wins. An offer of £5 for an almost-instant thousand likes on your Facebook page can seem almost too good to be true…As usual, it is.

Why now?

L: To begin with scammers built programmes, or click-bots, to automatically generate clicks. To fight this, Facebook developed fraud detection programmes to highlight click-bot behaviour so artificial likes could be removed from the site. Scammers then turned to click-farms, employing humans (as opposed to computers) to generate clicks in an effort to beat the Facebook fraud detection processes.

What are the business consequences of using click-farms?

L: There are very few winners when click-farms are used:

Business managers lose out

L: The new ‘fans’ will not engage with brands in any meaningful way and they are certainly not buying products. Furthermore, when Facebook detects that the likes are fake, those likes will all be deleted. Fake fans simply are not profitable.

PR departments lose out

L: A high like count for a brand page looks great, until the brand is called out for deceiving the audience and for supporting unethical working practices.

Consumers lose out

L: Consumers rely heavily on recommendations from peers before they commit to a purchase. They even need a confidence boost before we click like on a Facebook page. Peer validation often gives us that confidence. Artificially generated ‘recommendations’ can lead consumers to make misinformed decisions, often leading to loss of face or more seriously, financial loss.

Social networks lose out

L: Sites like Facebook and Twitter recognise that to attract advertiser marketing budgets they need to provide advertisers with a valid, engaged audience and a risk-free advertising environment.

Workers lose out

L: The workers are subjected to work long hours in poor conditions for low wages.

The only winners are the scammers operating the click farms.

Are click-farms breaking the law?

Paul Caddy (PC): For a start, they will certainly be in breach of Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities and Community Standards which makes it clear that users should not engage in any misleading behaviour while using the site nor should they set up fake accounts. Scammers typically set up hundreds of fake accounts in order to generate hundreds of likes, methodically logging in and out of these fake accounts—often in dingy backrooms in countries such as Bangladesh to do so. Facebook users can report fake accounts although it is by no means clear how popular and effective this option is.

In many cases, using a click-farm could also mean a trader is in contravention of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. Any communications—such as on a social media site—need to satisfy a test of ‘professional diligence’. This is defined as a standard of special skill and care that businesses are expected to exercise towards consumers in accordance with either honest market practice in a trader’s field of activity, or the general principle of good faith in a trader’s field of activity. If a practice fails to achieve this standard and it materially distorts the economic behaviour of the average consumer—or it is likely to do so—it will be deemed unfair. For example, this will occur if the average consumer is more likely to buy a product because of the practice than they would otherwise have been. Such behaviour (and similar behaviour) is an offence under the regulations.

What advertising consequences are there?

PC: Traders could also be in breach of the Code of Non-broadcast Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing (CAP Code) which sets out the rules on online advertising. Under the CAP Code, it is prohibited for advertisers to make misleading claims and for those claims not to be supported by evidence. Marketing communications need to be legal, decent, honest and truthful. It is unlikely the majority of these criteria are fulfilled when using click-farms.

So how can I undertake a reputable social media campaign?

L: There are reputable agencies out there who can help you to define your social strategy and grow your audience. Be sure to ask for references and case studies first though—don’t be swayed by a Facebook like count.

Paul Caddy, solicitor in the Lexis®PSL Commercial team and Latitude Digital Marketing: The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor. This interview appeared initially as a news analysis piece in Lexis®PSL Commercial.

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