You Don’t Really Like What You “Like” … We’re All Just Virtual Serfs on a Click Farm of Dead Souls

Recently, The Week posted a fascinating article about counterfeit Facebook and Twitter account click farms that generate fake likes for different celebrities, politicians, and brands. These fake likes and followers are used to create fake buzz around personal or commercial brands, so they look more popular than they actually are. Because in the Internet age, a new feudalism has emerged founded on the aristocracy of popularity. And to be popular, all you need is to appear popular. Enter the click farm:

In 2009, Facebook introduced the “like” button, which quickly became a way for people to celebrate an engagement or the birth of a baby, but also for brands to get people to endorse their products. Companies loved social media for the ostensible humanity it lent them; sales leads that came through social media, studies showed, had a much higher chance of converting into actual purchases. Google’s and Bing’s algorithms take social media into account, so large followings could also improve a company’s position in search-engine rankings, where appearing even one slot higher can mean significant additional revenue.

Celebrities — and more minor personalities, like bloggers trying to get endorsement deals — have increasingly found their value measured in Facebook fans and Twitter followers, and the payments they receive proportionate to their social media clout. Khloé Kardashian reportedly earns around $13,000 every time she tweets things like, “Want to know how Old Navy makes your butt look scary good?” to her 14.5 million followers. Politicians desire large followings for obvious reasons. . . .

To help companies, celebrities, and everyday people boost their social media standing, onliners set up internet stores — click farms — where customers can buy social media influence. Click farms can be found across the globe, but are most commonly based in the developing world, in countries like India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and the Philippines.

When I read about the click farm phenomenon, I immediately recall the main plot of Nikolai Gogol’s unfinished masterpiece Dead Souls. In the novel, a petty criminal, Chichikov, decides he is going to scam the feudal Russian system by buying the “deeds” to recently deceased serfs from a number of different feudal lords. He will then use these “deeds” as collateral for a loan on actual property. Chichikov’s plan is simple and brilliant. Because the Russian census has not yet determined the serfs to be dead, Chichikov is able to pretend he is already a feudal lord with hundreds of legally “living” serfs. He is in fact little more than a posturing peasant—a petty gamester. But on paper, he looks like a real aristocrat. He will use this virtual standing to purchase a feudal plantation. Once he has the land, he will use it to attract living serfs. Then he will use his real property to marry an aristocratic beauty. And his line will be established in feudal Russia forever. He will fake it ’til he makes it.

His plan backfires spectacularly, but the underlying principle of his plan is the basis for social media click farms: buy up dead souls—fake likes—in order to attract real audiences. Why does this work? Because everybody likes to be a part of what everybody else is already a part of. No one wants to miss out on what must be worthy of so much attention. Most people don’t seem to realize that much of that “attention” has been virtually fabricated by “dead soul” click farms.

And let’s not overlook the ambivalent nature of Facebook and Twitter’s relationship to click farms. On one hand, the internet age Chichikovs are potentially debasing social media’s real commercial value, but only if people generally realize the crowd of likes surrounding a particular celebrity, politician, or company is mostly populated by dead souls. As long as people don’t realize that fact, Facebook and Twitter stand to gain a lot from click farms.

Think about it. Let’s say you pay Facebook to “boost a post.” You are less likely to do it again if you don’t get likes (engagement) for your post. Facebook then has a vested financial interest in getting likes to your “suggested” post, no matter how they come. It would be easy enough for Facebook to pay a click farm to “like” any suggested post its “onliners” come across. I’m sure Facebook has legally covered its bases to look like it has nothing but antipathy for fake accounts and farmed “engagements,” but I have reason to believe they are at least indirectly encouraging click farm engagement.

For example, I boosted a post recently, and it received hundreds of likes. But, strangely, the link I was boosting had only a few visits, according to analytics. That was strange to me. Who likes a post they have not even investigated at all? Who likes a video they have not seen? Who likes an article they have not even read a word of? Maybe some people, but surely not hundreds. In addition to that puzzling bit of irrational behavior, most of the “people” liking my suggested post were clearly not from my target geographical audience, though they may have had IP addresses faking a US location. But Facebook can say that boosting my post was “successful,” even though it did almost nothing I actually wanted it to do. I got likes, didn’t I?

In the end, a virtual audience of dead souls is only as effective as the actual people willing to be fooled into serving the aristocrats of popularity. Turns out that’s a whole lot of us. It should be that these virtual serfdoms are not at all as effective in generating real interaction as word of mouth and personal contact. Word of mouth and personal contact force businesses, politicians, and celebrities to serve their “followers.” Internet feudalism fueled by click farms puts you and me at the service of the elite.

Eventually, just like with Chichikov, the click farm model will fail spectacularly, perhaps on the basis of its success as a money-making strategy.

If real people can’t trust anymore that followers are genuine, a brand’s number of followers starts to matter less and less. If a like doesn’t indicate a real like, what does it matter if something has a million likes … or a million views?

But in the end, it doesn’t matter if something is already popular, even if that popularity is genuine. Just because other people like something, that doesn’t mean it’s worthy of your approval or attention. Don’t fall for Chichikov’s virtual army of dead souls. Make up your own mind. And support the things you actually care about.