Notes on online social media

Stealth marketing and fake fans

A few weeks ago, I watched a Channel 4 Dispatches programme titled Celebs, Brands and Fake Fans, which looked at the issues surrounding celebrities endorsing products on Twitter in return for samples or possibly money without proper disclosure, and the mechanism by which fake Facebook Likes, Twitter followers, and YouTube views were purchased. In other words, the programme looked at two distinct issues: (1) stealth marketing, in which the public does not know about the fact that there was an exchange in which a company paid in goods or in money for tweets; and (2) Facebook fake fan factories – this documentary investigated those based in Dhaka, Bangladesh – which increase the number of fans and Likes on Facebook pages by using sockpuppet accounts. The content of this documentary would not have come as a surprise to anyone who is reasonably familiar with the internet or web marketing, however, stealthy endorsements by celebrities and fake Facebook Likes probably serve to inspire confidence in or exert influence on consumers, whether in flogging a product or in making something or someone look popular.

It ought to be clear that when someone endorses a product in return for a payment or for a sample, since that is a form of advertisement. It looked as if there was at least an implicit understanding between the celebrities and the providers of samples that the celebrities will tweet about the products. Perhaps that was sufficient distance, to give an alibi, that samples were freely given as gifts without strings attached, and the tweets were also freely given as genuine reviews. It was unclear whether the celebrities were paid directly for their tweets, and perhaps there was more naivete on the part of the celebrities than deception, however it was clear that there were intermediaries, fixers or conduits if you will, who were paid by those who sought celebrity endorsement. I find the role of these intermediaries extremely fascinating, and would have liked to know more about how they operate. In any case, it was clear that money was exchanged, but it was unclear who pocketed that money.

It would be fascinating to know the returns on celebrity tweets, in comparison to other forms of marketing and advertisements. The potential reach looks smaller than other forms, as these celebrities – none of whom I have ever heard about, as my knowledge of popular culture is severely limited – are not the superstars, but those with a good few thousand or more followers. Perhaps because of the illusion of closeness afforded between the tweeter and the followers, this style of marketing may be more effective. The marketers must also be hoping for retweets, further extending the potential reach of the message pushing the product. Whatever the aim, whether branding or actual sales, advertisers must think that this tactic works.

If tweets can be bought, directly or indirectly, then Facebook fans can also be bought. A quick internet search will reveal many offers of x number of fans for y amount of money. They look cheap. The documentary picked an example of such a seller of Facebook fans in Bangladesh, and what emerged was basically a twenty-first century version of the sweatshop, where employees each had numerous fake Facebook accounts, and liking the clients’ websites manually. It is labour-intensive, but with sufficient efficiency, and considering the cost of living in Bangladesh, it is a viable business model. It may be argued that this is essentially harmless, in that if someone puts up a Facebook page, and wants to feel good about themselves, why not buy a bunch of fans? But numbers always seem to suggest popularity, and popularity suggests authenticity or reliability. It is an illusion, but when making a snap decision whether to trust something, numbers are a good convincer.

By purchasing fans, companies may wish to get the ball running by creating an illusion of popularity for the product, or a campaigner may wish to legitimize his or her cause. One of the intriguing possibilities is that a lazy and self-styled SMO (social media optimization) specialist who outsources his or her work to these fan factories, after promising a client more social exposure and recognition. Instead of doing the hard work, the unscrupulous SMO specialist could buy fake fans, and tell the client that the job is done. The client, impressed by the results, so easy to understand as they are expressed in numbers, would not know that they are actually meaningless and that the fans are all based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, even though he or she sells his or her products locally in Leicestershire (I don’t know why I chose Leicestershire: for some reason it was the first name I came up with).

Numbers can be deceptive, and something that looks popular does not necessarily equate to accuracy or reliability. What this programme highlighted is the need for better net literacy, in the sense of the ability to assess critically – or simply think about – the materials that are created and encountered on the internet.