Six months ago the topic of click fraud at Facebook hit the headlines but was rapidly dismissed as the company's share price rose implying that the world is great and we should not worry. With Facebook increasingly becoming the advertising outlet of choice for many of the world's companies, MIT Technology Review reports on a study to dig deeper into just where the "likes" come from. As the authors note, recently, the number of likes of a Facebook page has become a measure of its popularity and profitability, and an underground market of services boosting page likes, aka "like farms," has emerged. While careful to avoid pointing the finger too aggressively, the findings show that one "like" is not like another as the use of "honeypot" pages to generate "likes" attracts 'users' (bots) that are significantly different from typical Facebook users (i.e. non-human money-spending users).
Whenever there is a new product to test, a service to announce or event to promote, many organisations turn to Facebook to post news of the development.
To enable this, Facebook allows users to create pages devoted to specific topics. Visitors can then “like” the page and then receive updates about the topic as well as connect with others with similar interest. The number of likes is therefore an important measure of the popularity of the page and there is considerable prestige in having many likes.
That is handy for Facebook which allows businesses to promote their pages using adverts targeted at certain groups of users who may be interested in the content. It is possible, for example, to target people with specific interests or those who live in the US and so on. These ads are a major source of income for Facebook.
However there is another way to promote Facebook pages. In recent years, a secret industry has emerged that sells likes to anyone willing to pay. These paid services inflate the interest in a Facebook page using “like farms” that generate likes on demand. Little is known about these services or how they generate likes. In particular, nobody is quite sure whether the likes come from automated bots or from paid human workers.
Today, Emiliano De Cristofaro from University College London and a few pals around the world provide the first systematic investigation into the nature of like farms and how they operate.
As the authors conclude:
We stress that our findings do not necessarily imply that advertising on Facebook is ineffective, since our campaigns were specifically designed to avert real users.
However, our work provides strong evidence that likers attracted on our honeypot pages, even when using legitimate Facebook campaigns, are significantly different from typical Facebook users, which confirms the concerns about the genuineness of these likes.
We also show that most fake likes exhibit some peculiar characteristics – including demographics, likes, temporal and social graph patterns – that can and should be exploited by like fraud detection algorithms.