Like it or not, you can buy it

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Shopping in the black market of social media
Just like the real world, we crave attention online. Some want less, some want more, but we all want it to a certain degree. We want people to follow us on social networking websites, to ‘like’ our photos and share our thoughts, and our witticisms and observations to reverberate through the internet. I have to admit I am no different. I have spent plenty of time in my five-odd years of existence on Twitter, in front of a flickering blue page on either my desktop or cellphone, composing seemingly complex thoughts in 140 characters, participating in silly games that occasionally trend (like #filmtitlesthatcouldbepornos ), hashtagging commonplace occurrences, frequently changing my Twitter bio with pompous declarations ( ‘caffeine-drinker, reader and traveller; not in that order’) or hipster-speak (‘social ninja’), tweeting people I would never engage in a real world conversation— all of it for some attention. And, I fear, somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind, there is this thought that what the real world had so far failed to notice would somehow be magically discovered on Twitter. That with a mug shot and few tweets under my name, people will finally recognise me and flock to follow and hear me. Perhaps this occurs in other minds too. But then reality hits you like always, even online.

I sat down in front of my Twitter page a few weeks ago to take stock. My single- minded five-year-long endeavour on Twitter had yielded a measly 209 followers. No one had ever ‘favourited’ or even retweeted me. It was as if no one even knew I existed here. Thankfully, I had been judicious in following only 195 individuals— a respectable followers-to- following ratio, you might agree.

Now I have over 5,000 Twitter followers. I purchased them. I went online, made an order, wired Rs 2,000 and went to sleep. Two days later, I woke up to the sound of my cellphone chirping with emails notifying me that some 5,000 individuals were following me.

I went through my list of followers; they were a mixed lot. They hail from all parts of the globe, from Juliaca in Peru to Puebla in Mexico. There are Latin Americans, Filipinos, Whites and Blacks. But they also have some similarities. Many have no display pictures, some bear images of cats and aphorisms. The women whose pictures are displayed are invariably good looking and often with little clothes on. All of them follow thousands of Twitter profiles, but very rarely does anyone else follow them. I wrote to some of them, but no one replied. They just sit there mute and inactive, occasionally coming alive to tweet and promote a product or service. I realised that what I had heard was true. These were not real people. They were bots—fake profiles, controlled not by individuals manning their individual accounts, but by algorithms whose purpose is to spam and inflate follower counts.

There is a large and growing black market for fake ‘likes’ and followers on social networking websites on the internet. Here, a person can buy—in a variety of packages and plans—anything one could possibly want of a networking website, be it Facebook ‘likes’ and followers, Twitter followers and retweets, YouTube page views and ‘likes’, or even LinkedIn connections and endorsements. Most of these sellers promise to gather genuine followers, but they are almost always bots.

A number of individuals have in the past been accused of buying fake ‘likes’ and followers on networking sites. Rajasthan’s Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot found himself in such a storm recently after rivals alleged that he had bought Facebook ‘likes’. Apparently, his Facebook saw a sudden jump on this count in a span of weeks from 169,077 to 214,639, most of them originating from profiles set up in Turkey. During the last US presidential election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney was also accused of buying followers on Twitter.

Fake profiles are nothing but simple pieces of code written by individuals with programming knowledge. In the case of Twitter, their creators use Twitter’s API (application programming interface)—an interface that other programs like Facebook use to interact with Twitter. Here, fraudsters are able to do such things as copy images and text from existing profiles and tweets, reshape them a bit, and use this pool of information to generate thousands of fake profiles in a matter of minutes.

Kamlesh Deokar, a professional who offers social media solutions to various companies, explains, “Previously, every fake profile developer sat down and manually created fake profiles. They started developing programs to create these profiles soon. But with the likes of Facebook and Twitter cracking down on fake profiles, the bots try to disguise themselves and appear more human.” Hence, most bots now come with bios, usually gleaned from existing user profiles, and have photographs as display pictures instead of the default image. They are then dispersed on Twitter by getting them to follow actual people with large followers in the hope that some will follow the bots, thus giving them alibis. A dead giveaway for bots are accounts that follow thousands of individuals but have no (or very few) followers themselves.

To show how efficient and advanced bots can be, one simply needs to look at some of the creative bots on Twitter that have been programmed not to follow and spam others, but to perform tasks. For instance, a twitter handle called @everyword, also a bot, tweets a word from an English dictionary every 30 minutes. This task was programmed in 2008 and the handle is expected to send its last tweet this year. Another interesting bot, @Pentametron, retweets any rhyming tweet it can find on Twitter twice every hour. Reading @Pentametron’s retweets is a hilarious experience. Try this random sample: ‘I love the move Father of the bride.’ ‘My stomach is committing suicide.’ ‘Defend, defend, defend, defend, defend.’ ‘I absolutely need an English friend.’

India is considered one of the world’s hubs for such fake profile creation. Foreign nationals and companies often approach developers here to provide them with followers and ‘likes’ because the job in this country costs a lot less than in the West. I approached several such creators. Most of them have websites but rarely do they disclose contact numbers. A Delhi-based social media planner whose website claimed to sell fake Facebook ‘likes’ and Twitter followers suddenly denies selling fake accounts once I identify myself as a journalist. He says that he has two political leaders and a few doctors as clients, but his job is to help them generate genuine ‘likes’ on Facebook. “We always get some leader or another,” he says of politicians. “They don’t understand social media, but because their top bosses are on these websites, they too want to be on them. They want us to create fake ‘likes’ and followers, but I refuse to get them fake ‘likes’,” he says. Another Mumbai-based social media planner, who only offers Facebook popularity, charges one rupee for every fake Indian Facebook follower. He quotes the same price for ‘likes’ too.

The most forthcoming is a Gurgaon- based social media planner who goes by the name of Social King. He has created over 50,000 fake Twitter accounts and an equal number of Facebook profiles. Whenever a client wants new followers or ‘likes’, he employs these accounts to perform the task. He charges Rs 2,000 for 5,000 fake non-Indian Twitter followers and Rs 15,000 for 5,000 fake Indian Twitter followers. For an Indian, having fake Indian Twitter followers evokes less suspicion and is thus more expensive. For a few extra thousands, he says he can make the bots retweet and promote my tweets. He charges Rs 1,300 for 500 Facebook ‘likes’ and Rs 7,200 for 50,000 of those. As many as 10,000 YouTube views are available for Rs 600 and 100,000 of these for Rs 4,500.

After a few conversations, he reveals that he is a college student who does this to make himself some money part-time. “I don’t know about ethics,” he says, “but the way I look at it, we are only providing a service.”

Payments are to be made online through payment gateways like Paypal or PayUMoney. Minutes after speaking with Social King, I receive a bill of Rs 2,000 for a canvas handbag with polka dots (as the bag’s image shows me) via PayUMoney. This bill is to act as a cover for my purchase of Twitter followers, since such purchases cannot officially be made through payment gateways.

While buying fake ‘likes’ and followers is not unlawful, it breaches the service terms of the websites in question. Both Twitter and Facebook, which run a credibility risk because of this black market, have actively started monitoring their websites for bots to deactivate. Last October, before Twitter held its famous Initial Public Offer and had its stock listed for trading, the company admitted that at least 5 per cent of its profiles were fake. Just last week, while presenting its fourth-quarter earnings report, Facebook Inc revealed that, by its estimates, between 5.5 per cent and 11.2 per cent of its users in 2013 were fake.

YouTube wiped out billions of music industry video views in December last year after auditors found that some clips had exaggerated their numbers vastly. Some days ago, YouTube announced a crackdown on ‘fraudulent views’, stating that its video views will henceforth be ‘audited’ and if any fraud is detected, the offender’s view count will be revised to reflect reality or the video clip deleted altogether.

Gaurav Bhaskar, global communications and public affairs manager at Google, explains the company’s policy on fraud in India. “We have a team in India that monitors videos and their view counts, looking for any suspicious activity,” he says, “So far, we’ve not found anything to be worried about. But as internet penetration increases and more businesses rely on online activity, the scope of abuse in India becomes larger.”

Says a Mumbai-based social media analyst, requesting anonymity because many in the online advertising fraternity know him: “Everyone is doing it. After an online advertising campaign is concluded and the client wants to see results, what does the agency do? They approach a fake ‘likes’ seller to create ‘likes’ and followers for them. How do so many music or advertising videos go viral? They initially buy a number of views. Once the video, because it seems to have generated so many views, is tagged as ‘popular’ and featured on YouTube’s homepage, it starts getting genuine views and thus sometimes goes viral.” He adds, “If one tries to go about acquiring ‘likes’ and followers in an organic or ethical manner, you can at most get 1 per cent growth, which for many clients is just not good enough.”

Dale Bhagwagar, a film publicist, admits that two of his clients, both upcoming actresses, bought themselves Twitter followers about two years ago. “One of them bought some 22,000 followers and another about 5,000 followers on Twitter. I was surprised, but who was I to say anything? The two of them were very happy. Since then, I have noticed that this has become common practice in the industry,” he says. According to him, it is crucial nowadays for every upcoming actor or singer to be on Twitter. “But barring a few top stars, why would people be interested in following them? Everyone, thus, buys a large number of fake followers to inflate their follower lists,” he says.

However, many claim that shopping for fake popularity, far from helping a brand, makes things worse. A few months ago, a digital and social media ad agency named Buzzinga Digital in Mumbai was awarded the Facebook account of a springwater brand to promote. This brand, available only in Mumbai and Goan five-star hotels, sells at Rs 50 for a 750-ml bottle. Since the product is niche, it has rather few followers on Facebook. But the previous agency handling the website started buying fake ‘likes’ to demonstrate how popular it had made the page. “From about 800 page likes, many of whom actively engaged with content on the page and personally know the owner of the water brand, suddenly there were over 11,000 page likes from people in Jalandhar and Chandigarh, places where this brand is not even available. Many of these accounts turned out to be fake, while some had unknowingly been lured into liking the page,” says Tarun Durga, one of the founders of the current agency. Many of those who had been tricked into displaying appreciation of the page complained to the agency via emails. “The worse thing is [that Facebook] only allows 5 per cent of all followers to [simultaneously] view content that is put up. Now with a majority of the water brand page’s followers being fake, it is likely that very few genuine followers even get to see the content,” he sighs unhappily.

According to Durga, most social media agencies should focus on ‘who is talking about the brand’ on the Facebook page, instead of the number of ‘likes’, both of which appear adjacent to each other as figures on Facebook pages. “But very rarely do clients even notice this segment. And many agencies are happy to exploit this,” he says.

Fake likes and followers, however, can be caught. There are online tools such as Fake Follower Check that claim to detect fraud. This they do with the use of metrics like the number of tweets a follower issues or the count of people following this follower (in turn). According to data crunched by Fake Follower Check, the BJP’s PM candidate Narendra Modi, who had nearly 3.4 million followers on Twitter at the time of the assessment, has 82 per cent ‘fake’ followers, 16 per cent ‘inactive’ followers and 2 per cent ‘good’ or genuine followers. The figures reported by that fraud detection tool for actor Shah Rukh Khan, who had 6.7 million followers at the time, are roughly the same.

It’s a standard pattern, it seems. Before I purchased my followers, 2 per cent of all I had following me were inactive while the rest were good. After the purchase, I was found to have 80 per cent fake followers, 18 per cent inactive, and 2 per cent good.

Now, those with large follower bases may not necessarily have bought them. They may have got lumped with fakes for no fault of theirs. Bots, after all, are designed to gain fake credibility by following famous people on Twitter, and so people who are already popular could end up with vastly exaggerated figures.

In the week since I bought my new followers, something strange has happened every day. My follower count has been on a rollercoaster. From 5,350 followers, my all-time high, the figure crashed before it stabilised at 5,200 the other day. Social King tells me this is normal and he will ensure that I always have the 5,000 I paid for. Deokar says that this occurs because bots are programmed to spot certain keywords. If, for instance, they follow and spam individuals who tweet these words, they sometimes also unfollow those who do not.

As I write this, my follower count stands at 5,259. Last night, it fell to 5,195. I always thought these followers would never go away. And even if they did, since none of them really exists, I would be fine with their disappearance. But after every precipitous fall and rise, I realise that I am left poorer by at least 20 followers.

I find myself checking my Twitter page every morning, going through my list of followers, trying to figure out who left me overnight. When I complain to Social King, he says in his familiar reassuring voice, “Fikar mat keejiye (Don’t worry). They will not leave you. Ek-doh naya bana doon aapke liye? (Should I make one or two new ones for you?)”