Click farms as shows in the HBO show 'Silicon Valley'.

A look behind the scenes of click farms

How click farms are manipulating algorithms

10 minutes to read
Article
Idhuna Pastoor
29/04/2019

In recent years there has been an increase in social media fraud. People can buy likes, views, clicks and followers through click farms. The reason for this kind of behaviour has to do with how the algorithms of big social media platforms work. Algorithms are manipulable and work according to the popularity principle, which means that more engagement with one's content equals more visibility on social media. (van Dijck, 2013) 

Click farms are undercover operations ‘in which individuals fraudulently interact with a website to artificially boost the status of a client’s website, product or service.' (PPCProtect, 2018) These click farms enable companies and individuals to buy social media influence and boost their social media standing, simply by manipulating the algorithms and 'faking' engagement to create visibility. (NewRepublic, 2015)

In this article, I will briefly discuss the influence of click farms, and then give an insight into what goes on behind the scenes in them: where they can be found, and what the working conditions are like. As I will also show, click farms are constantly testing the boundary between legal and illegal.

 

Click farms and the Popularity Principle

As mentioned above, a click farm consists of a large group of workers who are hired to click on paid advertising links, like, share, comment, subscribe, follow, or leave reviews for any social media page or account. It is a form of click fraud that helps companies and individuals gain online influence. (Cheaib, 2017; Wikipedia, 2018)

Click farms are an example of astroturfing, which is a term used to describe online activity where people generate the impression that something is real, while it is actually fake. It is about generating likes, comments, views, etcetera to manufacture an impression of popularity.

An example of a click farmer in China.

The farms are mostly run by small teams that manage them independently, and they can be found all over the world: for example in India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Eastern Europe, Egypt, and Bangladesh. (Cheaib, 2017; TheStartup, 2018) For just a few dollars, people can purchase thousands of clicks, for example in the form of ‘likes’. These clicks, this simulated traffic, is difficult to filter as fake because the visitor behavior of the farms appears exactly the same as that of an actual legitimate visitor. (Wikipedia, 2018)

The demand for click farms has been increasing, because more likes equals more visibility online and thus more chances for attention. In her book ‘The Culture of Connectivity’, van Dijck calls the underlying idea behind this 'the popularity principle'. She says: ‘connectivity is a quantifiable value, also known as the popularity principle: the more contacts you have and make, the more valuable you become, because more people think you are popular and hence want to connect with you’. (van Dijck, 2013) In other words: more engagement means more visibility. 

As the popularity principle is manipulable, click farms came into being and started using the popularity principle to create visibility for their clients on social media.

van Dijck then goes on to argue that this principle also holds for ideas or things that can be ‘liked’: ‘likability is not a virtue attributed consciously by a person to a thing or idea, but is the result of an algorithmic computation derived from instant clicks on the Like button’. (van Dijck, 2013) Apart from being quantifiable, popularity is also manipulable: boosting popularity ranking is built into the buttons we can click on. (van Dijck, 2013) The algorithms on social media platforms create a hierarchical structure where people with many followers or posts with many likes are made more visible.  As the popularity principle is manipulable, click farms came into being and started using the popularity principle to create visibility for their clients on social media. 

Are click farms legal or illegal?

Buying followers or likes does not break any laws, but the practice is generally discouraged by social media companies. Social media platforms try to detect the work of click farms, but have difficulty doing so. Kirstin Binns, a Twitter spokeswoman, said that Twitter ‘would not typically suspend users suspected of buying bots because it is hard to pinpoint who is responsible for purchases’, and Instagram considers click farms to be spam and in violation of their community guidelines. Facebook’s terms of service do allow buying fake likes, but they do warn about a lower engagement rate and damage to your page over time. In general: buying fake likes or followers is legal, but social media companies are constantly working on detecting the fake activities, and there is a chance that your online marketing loses its viability if you rely on fake activity in boosting your visibility (Boostlikes, 2015).

Whether click farms are legal is a different story. There are no government regulations that render them illegal, but click farms do breach a number of laws. (Wikipedia, 2018) Sam DeSilva, a lawyer specialising in IT and outsourcing law, says of the fake clicks: ‘Potentially, a number of laws are being breached - the consumer protection and unfair trading regulations. Effectively it’s misleading the individual consumers’.

There are no government regulations that render click farms illegal, but the companies do breach a number of laws.

In June 2017, Thai police discovered a massive click farm in Bangkok and arrested the three Chinese owners. The perpetrators used about 500 smartphones and 350,000 SIM cards to sell views and likes for the Chinese messaging app WeChat. The three men were charged with working without a permit and importing phones without paying taxes. The fraud is punishable under law in China, and the choice to operate in Bangkok may have to do with China allowing only one phone linked to a WeChat account in order to prevent click fraud. (South China Morning Post, 2017; Benzinga, 2017)

In other words: we know that click farms exist and that they are considered legal, but at the same time we know that click farms violate certain laws. Next I will dive deeper into what goes on inside click farms.

The working conditions

‘For the workers, though, it is miserable work, sitting at screens in dingy rooms facing a blank wall, with windows covered by bars, and sometimes working through the night.’ (The Guardian, 2013) Click farms operate in the dark - literally and figuratively - and the working places are usually dark rooms without any daylight or windows for fresh air.

Since click farms want to be active 24 hours a day, most click farmers work in a three-shift system. (Benzinga, 2017) But, that system is not always followed, and most farmers work around 12 hours a day. (Cracked, 2017) This means that click farmers spend long hours in dark places behind a screen. For instance, in 2014 it was discovered that around 30% to 40% of the clicks on some popular Facebook pages came from Bangladesh, which implies that about 25,000 people in Dhaka used computers laboriously and repetitively for hours on end. (The Washington Post, 2014)

A click farm is usually very hot to work in as well. Not only because they are indoors without any fresh air, but also because of the thousands of computers that are overheating. Click farms work with (cheap) second-hand computers and phones which are usually not the newest devices, and this old(er) technology generates an enormous amount of heat. (HongKongFP, 2019) Some click farmers were even burnt by working with the old computers. (Cracked, 2017)

Given the low salary, click farms are linked to sweatshops quite often as well. Some click farmers pay the minimum wage, but most click farmers receive a salary that is a lot lower. In Bangladesh, for example, click farmers earn as little as $120 per year, usually getting paid $1 per 1000 likes. (Benzinga, 2017) In the meantime, the boss himself can earn around $1000 to $2000 per month, and demands around $15 per thousand likes from clients. (The Guardian, 2013; Cheaib, 2017) Running a click farm can thus be lucrative business.

SIM cards and phones

Another problem with click farms has to do with the number of SIM cards and phones they use. Most click farms have more than 10,000 mobile phones, and as we saw before: in Thailand they found around 350,000 SIM cards. (Mirror, 2017)

Click farms use more that 10.000 phones to manipulate algorithms and create visibility.

Each click farm generates thousands of fake accounts with fake emails, and for the names of these accounts they use a random name generator. The farmers get tracked for every single click they give, and every click needs to be ‘authentic’ in the sense of not being too noticeable. The farmers have to switch between accounts constantly, and cannot use the same platform in a row too often. It takes time to throw off the algorithm. However, these fake accounts do sometimes get noticed: ‘According to Facebook’s 2014 financial report (...) 83 million fake accounts were deleted’ (Cheaib, 2017), and in February 2013, ‘Microsoft and Symantec shut down a ‘botnet’ of up to 1,8 million computers that were being used to create an average of 3 million clicks per day.’ (The Guardian, 2013)

Albert the click farmer

An ex-click farmer from the Philippines called Albert is one of the few people who have shared some of their experiences. Albert worked seven days a week, up to 12 hours at a time.

Albert says: ‘In the company, it was a giant room... Few people talked, so all you would hear is the clicks. Hundreds and hundreds of clicks. When I went home at the end of the day, sometimes it would echo. It’s why I couldn’t use the computer when I got back. I couldn’t stare at a screen any longer, and the clicks would irritate me’. (Cracked, 2017) Albert had noise-cancelling headphones at first, but they got banned. They were not allowed to listen to music either, so they only heard the clicks. For some, the clicking noises would even continue to ring in their ears after work hours.

Albert also talked about being in a state of near-constant paranoia. ‘Managers would walk by and could see where you were on your list. You were required to shorten your internet window so a Word document on the side could be seen as you did each task.’ (Cracked, 2017)

The company where Albert worked told their employees to comply with the police, but at the same time to not save anything in order to avoid leaving a documentation trail.

Whether click farms are illegal or not is a tough question to answer, but you could say that they are borderline illegal in most countries due to the laws they potentially violate. Therefore the risk of a government crackdown is always present. Albert shared that the click farm he worked at not only had a fire escape plan, but also a government raid plan. ‘The plan was, if the national police came, we needed to stay at our desks, not move, and comply with everything they said to do. What we were doing was legal, but laws were changing.’ (Cracked, 2017) The company where Albert worked told their employees to comply with the police, but at the same time to not save anything in order to avoid leaving a documentation trail.

About the number of computers, Albert says: ‘You need specific licenses for having what we had (i.e. rows and rows of computers). We were told the license covered it, but after we added some more rows, that rule was mentioned more. We were somewhere in between being legal and illegal, I think’. (Cracked, 2017) This, again, shows how click farms are on the edge of being illegal.

A look behind the scenes of click farms

Click farms are a form of click fraud that helps companies and individuals gain social media influence. Social media platforms work according to the popularity principle (van Dijck, 2013), which means that the algorithms favour content that has a lot of engagement, and click farms use this principle to create visibility online by manufacturing clicks that look real.

For just a few dollars, people can purchase thousands of clicks. The reason people actually want to buy these clicks is because in our current media environment, social media are important spaces for creating trends, for being visible and gaining audiences. Besides that, social media influences what is visible in 'traditional' media as well, which further encourages the use of click farms to generate visibility for oneself or one's cause. 

As we have seen, buying followers or likes is legal, but we cannot say the same with certainty for click farms. There are no government regulations that render click farms illegal, but click farms do breach a number of laws. For example, the working conditions are not good: click farmers spend up to twelve hours each day in a dark, hot room behind a screen. And that for the low salary of $1 per 1000 likes.

Click farms also own more SIM cards and phones than is legally allowed in many countries, and (most) farms work without a permit and import phones without paying taxes. From the experiences of an ex-click farmer we also learned about the poor working conditions and their consequences: about the horrible sound of the clicks, and not being able to use a computer or watch a screen when not at work. Click farmers also tend to be in a state of near-constant paranoia, not only because they are constantly controlled, but also because of the constant fear of a government crackdown.

If you see a post going viral without understanding why, or an account with a massive number of followers but not many likes on their posts, chances are that click farms have been active here. Click farms, essententially a dubious form of work, came into existence because of the way that our social media platforms are designed. Algorithms are manipulable and thus click farms play with the popularity principle to gain visibility for their clients.

References

Benzinga. (2017). What to know about click farms. Shanthi Rexaline.

Boostlikes. (2015). Is buying Facebook likes and fans illegal or unsafe? Kenny Novak. 

Cheaib, Ali. (2017) Have you heard of Click-Farms? Medium.

ClickCease. (2016). Click Farms are the new cruel reality of the ads world. Ilan Missulawin. 

Cracked. (2017). The Hellish reality of working at an overseas ‘click farm’. Evan. V. Symon. 

HongKongFP. (2019). The ‘like’ economy. Johan Lindquist.

Mirror. (2017). The bizarre ‘click farm’ of 10,000 phones. Bradley Jolly. 

NewRepublic. (2015). The Bot Bubble. Doug Block Clark. 

PPCProtect. (2018). What is a Click Farm? The quick way to thousands of likes. Sam Carr.  

Quora. (2018). How many SIM cards are there per one person? 

South China Morning Post. (2017). Thai police raid WeChat ‘click farm’. 

The Guardian. (2013). How low-paid workers at ‘click farms’ create appearance of online popularity. Charles Arthur. 

The Startup. (2018). Click Farms and Social Media. Jakub Ferencik. 

The Sun. (2018). Is it illegal to buy followers on Twitter or Instagram? Becky Pemberton. 

The Washington Post. (2014). Click Farms are the new sweatshops. Lydia DePillis. 

van Dijck, J. (2013). The Culture of Connectivity. A Critical History of Social Media. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wikipedia. (2018). Click Farms.