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Wed January 15, 2014

Offshore 'Click Farms' Inflate Social Media Numbers

Originally published on Tue January 14, 2014 4:12 pm

You’ve probably heard that there’s a huge industry devoted to inflating social media accounts. Italian security researchers found that creating fake Twitter followers generated between $40 and $360 million last year.

Bogus Facebook activity brought in about $200 million.

What you may not know is there are also “click farms,” where workers sit and tap away for as little as a half cent per click.

There’s also an industry building to delete fake followers, including a London company called Status People, for those trying to get rid of fake accounts.

Martha Mendoza of the Associated Press has taken a deep look and joins Here & Now’s Robin Young.

Guest

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Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAPARAZZI")

LADY GAGA: (Singing) We are the crowd. We're coming out. Got my flash on, it's true. Need that picture of you. It's so magical.

YOUNG: OK. I'll stop singing along. This video on Lady Gaga's YouTube page boasts more than a hundred million views. That's probably true. There are, after all, so many of what she calls those little monsters, her fans. But last year, Lady Gaga was stripped of 156 million views on YouTube because they were fake.

You've probably heard there's a huge industry devoted to inflating social media accounts. Italian security researchers found that creating fake Twitter followers generated between 40 and $360 million in revenue last year. Bogus Facebook activity brought in about $200 million. There are automated clicks - click bots. But did you know there are also click farms, where workers sit and tap away for as little as half a cent per click?

And there's also now an industry building to delete fake followers. For instance, a London company called Status People is trying to get rid of fake accounts. Martha Mendoza of the Associated Press has taken a deep look, and joins us from KUSP in Santa Cruz, California. Welcome.

MARTHA MENDOZA: Hi. Thanks.

YOUNG: So, tell us how it works. First of all, these fake followers, how does someone buy them? I mean, is it advertised?

MENDOZA: Yeah. You can go to any number of websites - we found more than a hundred - where you can buy clicks. The websites have names like Buy Plus Followers, Instagram Engine, which is going to sell you a thousand followers for 12 bucks. They will either dump them all at once, and you can have a whole bunch of new Twitter followers or other necessary clicks. Or they can also do drip clicks, they call, where they'll gradually add them. Even the U.S. State Department spent $630,000 buying Facebook fans.

YOUNG: Well - and one can understand how the State Department might want to appear to have a lot of friends, or be liked in hotspots around the world, where they're trying to do good work. But the inspector general criticized the agency for spending that money to boost its numbers. But why would social media companies like Facebook not want this? Because we know that Facebook often purges these fake users. You'd think that some of the social media companies that are trying to stop this wouldn't care about it.

MENDOZA: Everything they have, all their credibility is based on real engagement. And if it's actually a worker in a, you know, small room in Dhaka, that's not true engagement. And so that can really weaken their companies, and they fight back hard against this.

YOUNG: Tell us about that worker in that small room. These are the click farms you write about.

MENDOZA: Yeah. So I have colleagues who visited them in Jakarta, Indonesia, and another who interviewed a man who runs one out of Dhaka, Bangladesh, where a lot of them are based. In the past, people would use computer software to create clicks. And the social media firms got ahead of that and figured out how to stop that. So now these are people with real accounts, sitting in front of computers. They may have dozens of accounts. And they tap, tap, tap all day long to build social engagement numbers for clients. And there are firms that now track these back. So they'll find a Twitter member, for example, who has zero followers, who has three tweets, and who is following thousands. And those raise suspicion.

YOUNG: But then what? I mean, is this legal?

MENDOZA: At this point, the - nobody in law enforcement or, you know, attorney generals or the FTC, none of them have intervened with this. It could arguably be considered fraud, and it certainly violates the rules and regulations of the social media firms. So if people are caught buying clicks for any purpose, their accounts can be shut down.

YOUNG: But as we said, there are companies - at least one that you write about - springing up that can help clients get rid of the fake ones they may have purchased. Why are people deciding now, well, I did this, I boosted my following, but I want to get rid of them?

MENDOZA: They don't want to be outed, for example, as having bought them, because that can be embarrassing and that can decrease their value. There's also something called click bombing, where somebody will buy a bunch of clicks for somebody else's account, and then try to embarrass them by having them be fakes. And so people - there are firms now that simply audit other people's accounts for them.

YOUNG: Click bombing.

(LAUGHTER)

MENDOZA: Yes.

YOUNG: It's a new way of attacking, maybe a competitor.

MENDOZA: Exactly. Or let's say there's two people running for a particular political office. You could, perhaps, buy a whole bunch of clicks for somebody, and then out them as having bought followers.

YOUNG: Oh, wow. That's Martha Mendoza of the Associated Press. She took a deep look at click farms. But, Martha, while we have you, we've been reading a lot of your terrific stories, and another that you wrote, we referenced this week. It was about Watsonville, California - that was at least the jump-off point - in which 82 percent of the residents are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. One in five only speaks Spanish. And you wrote about a concern - you cited social scientists - that the town was becoming racially isolated.

Now, we spoke to a resident who didn't feel that, but also heard from listeners who objected to the phrase. You know, one pointed out: Latinos, Hispanics aren't a race. It's - they are ethnic. But also that most, by their second generation, do speak English. Tell us more about this phrase. And what did it mean to not just you, but the people that you spoke with in the town who might have had concerns?

MENDOZA: You know, the people I spoke to in Watsonville actually were pretty content with the make up of their community. It's a pretty exciting place. It has a real Mexican feel to it. And having lived in Mexico City and spent plenty of time in Watsonville, I can verify it definitely has a Mexican feel. But what many demographers and sociologist who I interviewed for this story told me, that's what happens when you have waves of immigrants.

YOUNG: Well - but the word isolation implies that there's a negative here. And, in fact, we also referenced a Boston Globe series that talked about towns with immigrants who were not becoming citizens, very different. You know, this fact that they weren't becoming citizens meant they weren't civically engaged and that there is a negative there. But just the word isolation made it sound as if there's something negative. Are you saying that, in fact, there's not?

MENDOZA: No. I think it can be really challenging for the community, particularly the young people in the community to break out. And the sole problem that I see and that people told me about is that it can make people have a harder time economically move in their way up. So in this region, economically, Watsonville has a lot more challenges than other communities.

YOUNG: Twenty-three percent unemployment, much higher than the states.

MENDOZA: And, I mean, I talked to kids who had gone on some college tours outside of Watsonville, and they just said I, you know, I don't know that I could be around all those white people all the time. They were really rude to us. And there's this lack of comfort.

YOUNG: That's Martha Mendoza, Pulitzer- Prize-winning reporter for the Associated Press, who takes a look at a wide range of things. Martha, thanks so much.

MENDOZA: Oh, thank you.

YOUNG: So Martha spoke to us on a couple of things there about her writing on Watsonville and what social scientists are calling racial isolation. Here's another listener comment about the ideas that communities get isolated when they don't speak English. Amanda writes: This is the kind of pressure that causes heritage language laws in Chicano and Latino communities by the second or third generation. It's why I'm struggling to learn Spanish as a second language, and I don't think it's good for our country or the Latino community.

We still welcome your thoughts on that. We'll link you up at hereandnow.org, where we'd also love to hear about your thoughts on click farms. Would you boost your social media? Should I? Mine is pitiful. I'm @hereandnowrobin.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

And I'm @jeremyhobson. And this is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.