The Shady World of Click Farms
How Bogus Social Media Followers Are Bending Our Perception of Reality
More than a decade ago I had my first direct experience with the world of cyber hacking for profit.
The computer issued to me by then-employer CBC News wouldn’t connect to the internet, so I had IT take a look.
It turned out the computer was infested with ‘adware’ programs that our anti-virus software failed to detect.
What was the adware doing?
Basically, it hijacked my computer’s internet browser and caused it to invisibly visit certain websites over and over again. It didn’t even appear my browser was open, but the adware was using up so much bandwidth that I couldn’t send my stories to the newsroom.
Every time my hijacked computer ‘clicked’ on an ad, the advertising agency would get paid by the advertiser. Basically, automated fraud on a massive scale.
Today these early adware hacks are dwarfed by large-scale enterprises designed to manipulate the way you see the world around you.
The focus now is not as much on Google ads as it is on social media, which is seen as much more influential with buyers, voters and fans.
Data Miners and Twitter Bots are among the many tools being used to sell you products you don’t want, boost the popularity of second rate actors, and more chillingly to influence democratic elections.
Among the most insidious of these are the so-called ‘Click Farms’.
MONEY CAN’T BUY YOU LOVE … BUT IT CAN BUY YOU LIKES
‘Click fraud’ is a huge problem for data and social media companies like Twitter, Facebook, Google, Yahoo and others.
Any company that provides advertising or promotion on a ‘pay per click’ basis can fall victim to the crooks who run Click Farms. The other victims are companies who advertise on the Internet.
So, what is a click farm?
Click Farms are usually located in developing countries with very low wage rates, such as the Philippines, India and Bangladesh, among others. Many use proxy servers or VPN
Workers are paid low amounts, perhaps one dollar for a thousand Facebook Likes. Most probably earn about $300 to $400 a year.
The Click Farms then sell their likes and followers at a much higher price.
You can check this yourself.
Just Google the words “Buy Facebook likes” and you’ll find several companies listing prices. They include Buy Cheap Social at $16 for 1,000 ‘real human likes’; BoostLikes at $71 per 1,000 likes; or iBuyFans with 1,000 likes for $17.99 or 10,000 for $149.99.
So, who’s buying these phony likes?
How about the US State Department?
Yes, believe it or not, the US State Department got its knuckles rapped for spending $630,000 to buy Facebook fans, ending up with more than 400,000 Likes. Its fan tally rose from 10,000 to more than 2.5 million.
Mysteriously, the US State Department was most popular in Egypt, which just means their Click Farm was too cheap to use a decent proxy server.
WHY BUY LIKES?
Just like a rich kid paying other kids to hang out with him, huge numbers of followers, fans and likes create the illusion of popularity.
An actor with 10,000 followers on Twitter is a loser. An actor with 10 million followers is a star.
More disturbingly, Click Farms are also hired by politicians or their political campaign teams, creating the illusion that their policies are popular.
As social media has become more influential, manipulating social media data is a core pillar of any modern political campaigns. It’s flat out manipulation.
Consider the Facebook Page of Donald Trump. When the Trump team put up a post about CNN rejecting the ‘First 100 Days’ TV Ad, it got 1.1 million views and 80,000 Likes.
But, are those Likes real?
During the 2016 election Trump had 1.7 million followers on Facebook, but only 42 per cent were American. Most of them came from developing nations like the Philippines, Malaysia, India, South Africa, Indonesia and Colombia.
All of these are well-known hubs for Click Farms, which suggests a large number of Trump’s followers were fake.
Whether the Trump campaign bought these phony followers is unknown. It’s not actually uncommon for third parties to buy Likes or Followers for another organization, without that organization’s knowledge.
And it’s not just Trump. While bashing Trump is popular and fun these days, a study published in Vocativ showed Trump was tied with Bernie Sanders for having the highest percentage of real, human Twitter followers at 90 per cent.
It was Hillary Clinton who had the most phony followers, with only 65 per cent considered to be real humans.
A politician’s currency is primarily measured in his or her popularity, so boosting social media profiles is considered very important.
But the currency for other social media giants, like the Kardashians, is actual currency. Khloe Kardashian, for example, is paid a reported $13,000 if she tweets something like, “Why do these jeans make your ass look so hot?”
Sad, but true.
Stars who sell their Twitter or Facebook popularity get more money depending on how many followers they have, and how many Likes or heart emojis they can generate.
Aside from that fact looking like the end of civilization as we know it, it also means there is a strong incentive for social media celebrities to up their game by any means possible.
And that’s where the Click Farms come in.
Twitter Queen Kim Kardashian West has more than 52 million followers on Twitter, and most are probably real, given her (to me) unaccountable popularity.
But if you wanted 52 million fake followers you could theoretically get them for about a million dollars. Then you too can charge $13,000 to talk about jeans and their beneficial effects on people’s rear ends.
In truth, Twitter would almost certainly detect such a massive Click Farm scam and purge your account, but the point is that many accounts are artificially bolstered by phony followers or Twitter Bots.
Social media stats show 31 per cent of consumers will check ratings and reviews online, including Likes, Yelp reviews and Twitter followers, before buying something online.
In short, a lot of what we see on social media is simply illusion produced in dingy Click Farms where underpaid workers earn a pathetic dollar a day making their masters rich.
But Click Farm owners make plenty of money to help them sleep at night.
In 2013 researchers in Italy estimated sales of fake Twitter followers would bring in up to $360 million. A US study found an estimated 15 per cent of all Twitter accounts are believed to be fake. A similar study found Facebook Likes could bring in roughly $390 million.
HOW CLICK FARMS WORK
When social media first began exploding across the Internet, shady software designers started creating ‘bots’ that would click on Like buttons, sponsored material and so on.
But the affected companies fought back, creating their own software to detect and purge the bots.
So Click Farms brought in old fashioned humans, in desperately poor countries, to click for them.
The first step is creating an identity.
When a Click Farm is hired, they create custom social media accounts tailored to the client. The client might want yoga fans in San Francisco, or night club goers in New York.
The worker enters those specs into a Random Name Generator on a website, which in my case returned Arlene Griffin. Our friend Arlene gets a job (barista at Starbucks), a photo and some friends, and is registered for a Facebook account.
The identity goes to the Click Farm workers, who use thousands of these phony accounts to click on the client’s Like button. The Click Farmers are hooked up through literally tens of thousands of cellphone sim cards, so they all appear to come from different IP addresses.
It’s almost impossible to detect, because the Click Farmers are real people, physically clicking on Like buttons, just like real Facebook users.
CLICK FARM AD FRAUD
But in addition to the perception of fraud by Click Farms is the truly fraudulent behaviour of some Click Farms who cross a different ethical line.
The website ClickMonkeys.com boldly advertises their service, clicking on ads for $1 per 1,000 clicks. Click Monkeys guarantees up to 10 million new impressions per month, and a million new unique visitors.
But, is it legal? Well, Click Monkeys on their site says yes … but only because their Click Farm exists beyond US legal jurisdiction: “Would we be offering this service over the Internet if it weren’t legal? Hell no! Click Monkeys!!™ is a Ukrainian company and the giant tanker ship click farm we have stationed just outside U.S. waters off the coast of San Francisco is registered at a Ukrainian berth so we’re not subject to any U.S. laws!”
That’s actually the worst explanation of what’s legal I’ve ever seen … but the point is pretty clear.
You can hire Click Farms to do your dirty work and click on ads all day and night.
You might do that to make your own site look more popular than it is. Or, you might get them to click on ads, and you then fraudulently charge your customer for all those phony ad views. Or, if you want to get really sinister, you can hire them to click on a competitor’s Google Ad, and thus drain your competitor’s advertising budget!
Click Farm owners are not nice people. They’ll literally screw over anyone for less than a penny a click.
WEB SURFERS BEWARE
What can you do about Click Farms and their impact on your decisions?
Basically, nothing more than applying some critical thinking.
But everyone can negate much of the manipulation by thinking critically about everything we see.
If a TV actor you’ve never heard of has more Twitter followers than Ryan Reynolds … that’s probably fake.
If a politician claims to have 20 million followers, well … it’s a politician. Expect a lot of exaggeration.
See a crappy looking hotel in Mexico City, rated as the best hotel in town on TripAdvisor or Yelp? This actually happened to me, and after a sleepless night in a fleabag hotel, now I only look for reviews from real travel writers.
Because the digital world is nothing more than bits and bytes, 1’s and 0’s, much of what we see and read is illusion invented to sell us products or manipulate our opinions.
When it comes to the Internet and social media, I have three rules:
Seek out reliable sources for confirmation.
Believe NOTHING without proof.
Oh, and by the way, if you wouldn’t mind clicking the Like button on our Facebook page, that would be great.
We don’t use Click Farms.