Fred Daniels was launching a new business, and needed instant credibility. He created a Facebook page for his company, then logged onto Freelancer.com and hired someone who could add 5,000 fans to his page in a hurry. Within two days his Facebook Likes had zoomed from single digits to more than 4,500.
Total cost: $30.
"I'm just trying to create a platform that people will look at and say, 'Hey, people are paying attention to this'," he says. "It creates visibility, and some measure of credibility for my company."
"Fred Daniels" is a pseudonym; his real name has been cloaked to avoid potential repercussions from Facebook. But his story is being repeated thousands of times a day across every major social network – Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, Instagram, even Pinterest. An arms race for Internet popularity has resulted in millions of false followers, fictional fans, and bogus endorsements, many of then generated by software bots.
Even the already famous seem to have enjoyed an artificial boost. In August, UK social media management firm StatusPeople scanned several massively popular Twitter accounts using a service it developed called Fake Follower Check. According to StatusPeople, more than 70 percent of President Barack Obama's 19 million Twitter followers were either fake or inactive accounts. Fake Follower Check returns roughly similar results for Mitt Romney, Lady Gaga, and Justin Bieber.
But while celebrities may lose a few followers – as when Facebook purged 66,000 phony Lady Gaga fans last month – individuals and small businesses who buy endorsements stand to lose a lot more. They could forfeit their social media accounts, for example; buying fans or followers violates the terms of service for most networks. Using false endorsements misleads potential customers, opening businesses up to accusations of fraud. And they're paying for services that are ultimately worth very little.
Fake fans, real money
Internet fame has never been easier or cheaper to attain. There are literally scores of services that will add followers, fans, likes, page views, and more to your accounts for just a few dollars.
Some sites work like exchanges where people trade endorsements. On YouLikeHits, for example, you submit the social media accounts you want to promote and earn points for endorsing other people's pages. You can offer, say, 5 points to anyone who follows you on Twitter or 10 points if they add you to a G+ Circle. If that sounds like too much work, you can purchase points for .3 to .6 cents apiece and then use those to attract fans.
Others sites are more like Amazon; you buy a certain number of endorsements and wait for them to show up on your virtual doorstep. FanMeNow, for example, will sell you 500 "real worldwide Facebook fans" for $500 or deliver 5,000 YouTube views for $25. Want your artfully sepia-toned photographs to show up on Instagram's Popular Page? That will run you $250.
Do a Google search on "buy Facebook fans" and you'll find dozens more like these, not counting all the independent contractors on sites like Freelancer, eBay, Fiverr, and elsewhere. Nearly all of these services claim to provide "real" people for your money. In tests using several of them, however, accounts from living breathing humans were few and far between. In fact, nearly all of the accounts I purchased in researching this story appear to be fake.
Within 24 hours of signing up for YouLikeHits I added 34 followers to my Twitter account – and would undoubtedly have added many more if I hadn't run out of points. Virtually all of them were accounts created to promote work-at-home scams, porn videos, or sites selling even more fake Twitter followers.
On FanMeNow, I took advantage of a two-for-one sale to add 700 Facebook fans to my page for just $15. Nearly all of my new fans had Spanish surnames; approximately 80 percent had no profile photo and almost no activity, aside from hundreds of page Likes. I sent messages to 20 accounts that displayed photos of themselves and friends; at publication time I'd received no replies.
On Fiverr I hired an independent contractor named Richard Braggs, who added 20,000 views to an obscure YouTube video virtually overnight – though not a single comment – suggesting that the count was artificially inflated.
Braggs (aka Richard Roles, Rich Sidari, Magic Rich and Rich Rhythm) is the owner of CodeNameSystems, software used to manipulate fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter, G+,YouTube, and other social nets. This bot herder software relies on vast networks of zombie accounts created for this purpose, which are bartered on underground community forums such as BlackHatWorld.com.
None of these parties responded to multiple requests for comment. But Al Delgado, sole proprietor of FanMeNow, did talk to Slate's Seth Stevenson earlier this month:
Delgado told me he buys these fake accounts in bulk from suppliers in India. Techies on the subcontinent cook up all these nonexistent personas, making sure the accounts look just real enough to pass as nonrobots. In a typical day, Delgado says he fields 30 to 35 orders, most requesting between 1,000 and 5,000 zombie followers. "Sometimes someone will buy a million," he says, "which costs $1,300. Some of these are people you've heard of. I mostly sell to musicians, but also lots of models, comedians and porn stars."
The networks fight back
Not surprisingly, the big social networks take a dim view of this fakery. For one thing, it undermines the key premise to their business models: that recommendations from real friends are more valuable, and thus worth more to advertisers. A key part of Facebook's revenue model is selling ads to generate more Likes on a business or product page; these endorsement services appear to offer users the same benefits, but at a fraction of the cost.
Unfortunately for Facebook and Twitter, trying to stop swarms of fakers is like trying to halt a zombie apocalypse with a machete; they might lop off a few heads, but they'll be quickly overrun by the staggering horde.
Following a storm of bad publicity around bogus user accounts, which by its own estimates exceed 83 million, Facebook is stepping up its efforts to rid the network of fake Likes. The network has also been fine tuning the tools it uses to distinguish between legitimate efforts at social media promotion and the work of bot nets, explains Mat Henley, Facebook's e-Crimes Investigation & Intelligence Manager.
Many of these fakers are using malware or otherwise violating the law, Henley adds, so Facebook is working with law enforcement to pursue the worst offenders.
Finding fakes on Twitter is a bit more challenging, explains a Twitter spokesperson. Unlike Facebook, Twitter doesn't require members to use their real names, and it allows them to operate multiple accounts. In addition, some 40 percent of Twitter users are lurkers who never issue a single tweet, he adds, making them harder to distinguish from inactive or fake accounts.
Like Facebook, Twitter scans petabytes of data looking for anomalies that indicate bot activity, and takes legal action when it can. Last April it filed a civil suit against five companies that sold Twitter spamming software.
"Buying followers typically isn't very fruitful in any case," the spokesperson says. "It doesn’t give you any more clout, and it puts your account at risk for being suspended."
Google did not respond to requests for an interview.
Fear of a black hat
Still, these efforts appear to seem to be having some effect. In June YouLikeHits announced that it would no longer trade Facebook fans, after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from the network. The Web site for CodeNameSystems appears to be shut down, and a notice posted on BlackHatWorld said the Facebook accounts created with it were under review.
Others are getting out of the business entirely. Last summer, Cincinnati-based marketing firm Web Media Experts shut down its LikeSocialMedia exchange, which relied on a network of real people trading Likes.
"It used to be the main metric of social media success for many companies was how many Likes or fans they had," says Mike Nail, vice president of operations for the company. "But what really matters is engagement, and when you're buying Likes to pad that number, your engagement rate actually goes down. You can't have engagement with people who don't exist. The real reason to use social media is to get leads, and you can't get leads from fake people."
Fred Daniels thought he was being careful. He insisted his fans had to be real, not zombies. They had to have been on Facebook for a minimum of three months and have at least 50 other Likes; he didn't want the contractor using any black-hat methods.
Odds are, though, Daniels didn't get what he paid for. I found him via a mutual fan of ours – one I had purchased from FanMeNow.