The Dark Side of Social Media

Not so long ago, in a galaxy not so far away, social media offered the promise of true direct one-to-one communications between customers and a genuine corporate voice. But to gain influence, some marketers fell to the dark side.

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To be visible online, you not only needed to have the right social media strategy, tone or community management, you also needed to have the numbers – and that’s where a lot of marketers got confused between the question of “influence” and “visibility,” and became tempted by the “Dark Side.” As a result, marketers opened Pandora’s box on the race to gain followers on their social media channels in an effort to improve their rankings. A large follower base would immediately make a brand more visible, credible and influential in a user’s Twitter stream, Facebook newsfeed or any of the rest of the major social media platforms. And even though many of these platforms attempted to slightly improve their algorithm to prevent these types of scams, there hasn’t been much success.

The Black Market of the Dark Side 

In this race to gain the biggest follower base and extended audience, some marketers went to an extreme to acquire followers at any cost. And since we’re talking about digital tools, it was easy to create tools to bend the rules. Fake accounts initially were used to spam the web, but they could also be used to “artificially” increase ranking and influence.

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Facebook recently reported that 83 million of its users are actually fake accounts (nine percent of its 901 million users). Twitter is notorious for its cheap price in buying fake accounts (for a dozen dollars on eBay, thousands of followers can be easily acquired – see this infographic about the “black market” of social media). Brands, politicians and celebrities have been caught in with their hands in the honeypot. Blogs also can be targeted with fake profiles – not only to spam the comments, but also as a way of increasing the visitor count or forcing fake engagement. In fact, studies show that almost half of the internet’s traffic is from bots.

May the Force Be With You – Tools and Methods to Spot Fake Accounts

There are a number of tools and strategies designed to help spot and bring shame to these tactics. Vigilant digital whistleblowers can rely on the following suggestions to reveal these dark methods:

  • Wikipedia has been targeted for years by fake accounts to edit and influence articles (with anonymous users trying to change content). A tool such as Wikiscanner helps to identify those anonymous users and reveal if they are a member of governmental agencies or companies trying to improve their online image.
  • Twitter also now has a tool to spot the number of fake accounts following your handle. Statuspeople will tell you an approximate percentage of the “good,” inactive and fake accounts following you – and they are working to implement a “spam removal tool” into the program. In the meantime, here are a couple of other methods to spot fake Twitter accounts.
  • Here are some strategies to spot fake accounts on Facebook.

The black market of social media has gotten so vast that academic researchers are now developing methods to identify fake accounts and bots on the web and in conversations. It’s the early days of their work but you can watch a full video conference presenting their progress here.

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The Republic Strikes Back

Of course, once a user is found to be using these tactics, backlash in public opinion and communications disasters ensue. Not only is it a matter of cheating the system and unfairly influencing opinion, but it shows both a lack of knowledge about internet culture and a lack of respect for the audience. Just ask a certain U.S. presidential candidate. Backlash from Mitt Romney’s supposed fake Twitter account fiasco is still going on – there are currently more than 27 million results for the Google search “Mitt Romney Fake Twitter Accounts” and more than 21,000 articles published in just a matter of days.

Resist the Dark Side We Must

The conclusion? It’s all about the human voice. We’ve mentioned it before, but the web is full of humans – and it’s not a place for robots. Brands have nothing to win using these shady methods but shame and despise from angry internet users when they are inevitably caught. The tools are getting even easier to use to identify those on the “Dark Side.” Transparency and honesty aren’t an option – they are a necessity.

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