A fantasy world of fake likes is big business in real life

Study analyses fake interaction services on social media and finds a murky world of bought reviews and fantasy engagements selected by gender or geography

A team of researchers have delved into the world of fake engagements, shedding light on the growing services industry that resells artificial interactions on social media. 

The study by the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) and IMDEA Networks analyses fake interaction services on social media and was published in the scientific journal Computers & Security. Researchers aimed to quantify and analyse the evolution of the global market price of these services, which has rarely been studied in academic literature. 

Their findings reveal a wide range of services, including buying direct traffic to a website, Instagram likes and YouTube views, with prices ranging from free to several euros per interaction. 

“There is an extensive catalogue of services covered by fake interaction resale panels. You can buy any form of interaction from any global or local service,” says study co-author Juan Tapiador, a professor in UC3M’s Computer Science Department. 

The researchers also found that these services offer a high degree of "customisation". In other words, for specific interactions such as playing music, watching videos or receiving "likes" on social media, users can choose the geographical origin and gender (male or female) of the account that will carry out these activities.

“A third interesting finding is the disparity in prices between providers of the same service, which suggests that this is still a developing market where the market value of this service is unknown,” says Tapiador.

Instagram fakes are cheap, TripAdvisor fakes are pricier

The study found that the cheapest ways to increase online presence include purchasing direct website traffic, receiving "likes" on Instagram, and obtaining views on multimedia platforms. For instance, acquiring 1000 "likes" on Instagram can be done for as little as 1.3 euros, while 2 euros can provide 1000 views on YouTube or 1000 plays on Spotify. 

Some services are free, enabling customers to gauge their quality and ultimately decide to invest in them. For less than 9 cents, customers can obtain 1000 views on TikTok, SoundCloud, or Instagram/IGTV. However, purchasing Instagram followers is more expensive, costing 4.3 euros for 1000 followers. More personalised services, such as Google or TripAdvisor reviews, are pricier, ranging at around 1 euro per text.

Co-author Narseo Vallina-Rodríguez, associate research lecturer at IMDEA Networks, says: “Potential consumers of this type of service can be anyone depending on the type of review: from influencers who want to promote their channels on social media to brands trying to promote the visibility of their products.”

The study highlights that some platforms provide reports on "inorganic behaviour" to report the volume of deactivated accounts and their purpose, but the total volume of fake interactions on current platforms remains unknown.

“Platform providers can implement proactive measures to detect and identify accounts used to generate fake reviews,” says Vallina-Rodríguez. “In the past, efforts were made to detect fake accounts on social networks such as Twitter, which were very effective and could be implemented to tackle this problem. However, it is a very costly effort.”

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