Paying for Likes: the rising trend of false social media advertising

Social media is gently intruding further and further in to our lives. It’s starting to get unified with the desktop (look at the native Facebook facilities on Apple’s Mountain Lion OS and Windows 8′s ever-changing social tiles), and it is a constant presence in the physical world around us (how many QR codes can you spot in the next hour? And how many invitations to ‘like’ or ‘follow’ a company through a litany of social media outlets?).

This trend is not overly-worrying on its own (though some argue it is, as evidenced in this Cracked article), but worrying conclusions might be drawn from the added impact of a Gartner report (PDF) that suggests increasing numbers of Social Media reviews will be ‘faked’ over the next two years. They even go so far as to pin that figure at between 10 and 15 percent.  This comes at a time when the impact of social media marketing is becoming ever-greater, thanks to the unification of the desktop and the social media experience on newer laptops and tablets.

Gartner report that over half the world’s Internet population is now on Facebook, with much of the rest accounted for by non-English variants on the social network model. The reach of social media marketing is profound. Yet, in the past year, websites have sprung up offering Twitter retweets, Facebook Likes and as many Pins as you can eat. So-called ‘microjob’ websites, which offer payouts to willing volunteers in the sub-$5 category (hence ‘fiver’, the trending name for a microjob) often contain members offering false account follows, App Store reviews, downloads, installs and e-mail newsletter subscriptions.

What is the draw for a legitimate company? The Daily Dot explains that thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of ‘Likes’ can be sent to a Facebook page via cunning use of ‘bots’, who run fake accounts. These ‘bots’ are quite complex – they’re capable of making random status updates, requesting friendships and browsing friends’ pages autonomously. That just about covers every angle Facebook might use to determine if a user is genuine or simulated. The purchasing company, then, can pay a tiny amount for a potentially massive amount of credibility. Facebook Likes are the currency of popularity, and it pays to be popular. More than $5, that’s for sure.

Now that ‘reputation’ can be quantified so easily, Gartner suggest that this widens up the relatively narrow ‘reputation management’ corporate niche. They predict the advent of ‘reputation defense’ organisations specifically employed to tackle false advertising and slanderous sabotage and keep their employing body out of the Federal Trade Commission’s bad books. 2009 saw a spate of high-profile legal cases surrounding the purchasing of social media favour – there is precedent for fining, arrests and sanctions. It’s a dangerous path to tread.

While Gartner do suggest a more rose-tinted picture of a possible future in which companies exalt poor reviews as much as great ones – with the nebulous appeal of ‘customer feedback’, according to the report’s authors – one glaring oversight the technology research group simply failed to mention was the sheer ease with which this sort of consumer duping can be carried out. It takes twenty seconds, and less than the cost of a beer, to win a thousand followers. And there is no prospect – even a nascent one – of legitimate microjobs websites coming under fire for offering services that result in consumer misinformation. That’s a tougher legal battle – and if Gartner are correct, one that we’ll be reading about very soon.