Social media giant Facebook has never been behind the door when it comes to self-promotion.
Then again, why should it when it has an estimated 901 million users? The only problem is that some of these users may not be quite as genuine as they claim to be. That, in itself, shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise: it’s very easy to pretend to be somebody when you’re online. What will worry some companies however is that these imposters may actually be having a negative effect on their profitability.
Many online businesses pay big money to advertise on Facebook.
They try to gather as many ‘likes’ as possible, and then use these endorsements for targeted product marketing. In theory it’s fair exchange: Facebook gets the revenue it craves, and business gets a foothold in new markets. However, BBC research has now suggested that as many as 5 to 6 percent of users on Facebook – that’s 54 million in layman’s terms, may be fake. The clear inference from this new research is that many companies may be wasting large sums of money chasing Facebook business that will never materialise. Facebook, naturally, is adamant that this isn’t a significant problem. So what’s really going on?
Facebook makes its money by charging advertisers a fee to show adverts to attract new ‘likes.’ The recent flotation success was built on the back of building these revenues even further. Facebook accepts that up to 54 million accounts may be bogus, but it denies that this is a significant problem. What will worry the platform is that if the suggestion that advertisers may be wasting their money targeting fake users is true, then this may significantly affect its share price. On 26 July, Facebook is due to publish its first financial results since the flotation.
This story raises two big questions: why and whom.
What makes users register fake profiles and offer bogus endorsements for products they have no intention of buying? Well according to Graham Cluley of security firm Saphos, the answer is simple. Speaking to the BBC he explained:
“Spammers and malware authors can mass-produce false Facebook profiles to help them spread dangerous links and spam, and trick people into befriending them. We know some of these accounts are run by computer software with one person puppeteering thousands of profiles from a single desk handing out commands such as: ‘like’ as many pages as you can to create a large community.”
“I’m sure Facebook is trying to shut these down but it can be difficult to distinguish fake accounts from real ones.”
The other big question that needs to be asked is who are these fakers?
Well, according to Michael Tinmouth, a social media consultant with experience of running social media advertising campaigns, a large proportion of these fake profiles originate in Egypt and the Philippines. He told the BBC that he had discovered many of the bogus ‘likes’ his campaigns had received had come from 13 to 17 year olds in these countries who had subsequently gone on to like as many as 5,000 other brand pages.
To test the story, the BBC set up its own bogus brand on Facebook – Virtualbagel – a non-existent company without products. Sure enough, the number of likes this company attracted from Egypt and the Philippines was disproportionately large: so large in fact, as to be suspicious. How could the corporation tell some of these fans were fakes? Well, the fact that one fan was called Ahmed Ronaldo and claimed to work for Real Madrid might give you a clue.
How has Facebook responded to the story? Well, you won’t be surprised to learn that it has tried to play the story down. A spokesperson for the platform claimed:
“We’ve not seen evidence of a significant problem: neither has it been raised by the many advertisers who are enjoying positive results from using Facebook. All of these companies have access to Facebook’s analytics which allow them to see the identities of people who have liked their pages, yet this has not been flagged as an issue.”
“A very small percentage of users do open accounts using pseudonyms but this is against our rules and we use automated systems as well as user reports to help us detect them.”