Is Facebook Quietly Turning The Screw Of Bogus Endorsements?

What have Eminem, Lady Gaga and Rihanna got in common?

Well, probably more than you might think. It’s nothing to do with being pop stars or celebrities, though that in some way does play a part. What they share in common is the mass popularity of Facebook. They’re ‘liked’ by millions, and are followed by adoring fans who hang on their every word. Mind you they’re not alone. It isn’t just celebrities who can count on the backing and support of fans: brands and products can also generate the same amount of loyalty and advocacy. However, something happened last week that might just have a profound effect on their reputations and popularity: countless Facebook ‘likes’ mysteriously disappeared.

Now it’s long been suspected that many of the ‘likes’ generated on the social network might not be genuine.

In fact the BBC’s technology reporter Rory Cellan-Jones investigated the matter earlier this year and set up a fake company, Virtual Bagel, to test the waters. What he discovered was that the company, which had no products, still managed to generate over 1600 likes in a matter of days. He put that down to spam, or fake likes. Facebook denied that there was a problem, but agreed to look into the matter and take minor corrective action if a problem was discovered.

So did Facebook discover that all was not as it seemed? Well, there’s the rub – it never really said. It initially claimed that if it had to take any action, then it would probably only affect 1% of accounts. It later admitted that the figure could be as high as 8.7%.  But the network remained suitably vague about the scale of any potential problem, which in the light of its plummeting share price is hardly surprising. So, what happened when it looked into the matter and opened Pandora’s Box? Well, thousands of Facebook likes started to disappear.

According to statistics released by Pagedata, many of Facebook’s most-liked pages are taking a bit of a kicking. Facebook is remaining tight-lipped of course, and refusing to confirm one way or the other, but the figures would suggest that something is definitely going on. The page for Texas HoldEm Poker, one of the site’s most popular, shed 96,317 “likes” on Wednesday 26 September alone: this contrasts with net gains every day of over 20,000 in the previous month.  It isn’t just brands and games that have hit the wall either; other prominent pages also saw a huge drop in numbers, including Rihanna (-28,275), Eminem (-15,420) and Lady Gaga (-34,326).

Now you might wonder why that should pose a problem for Facebook. Surely if it has discovered that there is an issue, and then taken positive action to correct the problem, then that can only do its reputation good, can’t it? Well, not really. Facebook needs to expand its targeted advertising service to help its share price recover, and for that to happen it needs to demonstrate that it can offer not only measurable value for money, but also that the promotion of online engagement with brands is genuine.

This promotion is a key component of the social media giant’s business model.

It uses key information, like age, gender and location – to target certain advertisements at specific recipients. If the system is now under threat from a black market of fake “likes”, sold in bulk in order to falsely boost a brand’s figures, then many businesses will think twice before committing advertising money. Is the system under threat? Well, a simple search will bring up a host of websites offering a service to provide large numbers of Facebook fans or “likes” – as well as followers on Twitter and views on YouTube for a marginal outlay. If you can buy fans with no loyalty to the brand, then businesses may well be better served by looking for alternative ways to promote their brands.

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