Now that social media reputation and social endorsement is valuable and tradeable, social plugin fraud identification will become a crucial part of the decision making process.
It may also lead to undermining the core value social media creates in creating trust and reputation online. What if we cannot trust social media after all?
As humans we are very good at making minute observations any kind of visual presentation. This means we smell a rat if something we see “doesn’t feel right” and can sense it has been manipulated, even if we cannot put our finger on what it is.
Online however the situation is a little more tricky. Content like graphics and text can be extracted from the source itself and presented so it exactly matches the layout and style it is intending to reproduce. The same fonts and styling rules can be taken and applied to any other content. If the person has an intermediate level of technical know how in coding, CSS and general web development this could look identical.
This comes with particular implications for social media, which has quickly become the key way for building brand reputation and endorsement. What if it could be faked?
Well, the purchase of Facebook Likes, Twitter followers and other artificial social engagement has already become a widespread issue. This is driven by the fact that these metrics are seen to be the holy grail of social media marketing. It is now possible to buy 1,000 Facebook likes for as little as $10. Of course these likes have no long-term value and will not lead to future engagement or purchase. This is a -$10 (yes 100% negative) ROI.
Yet likes and followers are tangible and can be seen. This is why they have become a tradeable online commodity for quick fix social media marketers and gurus who only have experience managing small-time accounts. Some marketers are going even further in their deception that may undermine the social fabric of online reviews and social endorsement.
Today a great example via Quickmeem.com was found that highlights the length some marketers are prepared to go to in order to harness social media endorsement (If it is still available see: http://megabargains24.com/UK/sub/?KW=DSPTBL&CAMP=A64).
This is an ‘advertorial’, or advert written to appear as if it is an editorial. Nothing wrong with that, advertorials have been common place for years. This article/advertorial was published by www.taboola.com, a company who collects a database of article submitted from a variety of third parties and provides a function for other websites to embed these articles on their own website.
This content network concept was created to allow content producers to attract people to view their content by having their articles published on higher traffic websites. The method has become a popular way for website owners to present more content to the viewer, so their website looks more comprehensive, while making money from those who click on the articles. to box of content produced by third parties. Taboola claim to have large publishers on board like The Weather channel, Food Network and Time Online (of Time Magazine). A lot of this content is of dubious quality, yet what we are concerned about as social media marketers is the abuse and faking of the social media engagement seen on the article page.
In the image above you can see we have used the “inspect element” feature built into most web browsers today. Simply right click on something you seen on a webpage and click on the “Inspect element” menu item. You need to understand basic html at least to be able to make sense of the code, but if not we’ll run through our observations.
The first was what drew my attention to this great example.
The “29,041 Facebook likes”:
WOW! 29+ thousand Facebook likes!? That must be some great content or great offer!
This Facebook feature normally allows you to highlight the number, as it is actual text taken from Facebook itself. Facebook records the number of likes any specific piece of content has received. You can see from the highlighted blue area that this number is part of a single image, which means it is not from Facebook, not a real number of likes and is completely fake.
Next comes the really interesting bit.
7 commentators have endorsed the website:
Even more amazingly 10 people actually bothered to give feedback on an advert. The feedback is very positive towards the company being promoted, which in this case is www.madbid.com. One person also gives a useful suggestion of spending more money with MadBid.com to become more successful at ‘winning’ on the website.
This could easily fool most people. Readers could well be thinking people have had huge success with MadBid and that claims being made are by real people. Unsurprisingly since the appearance and layout of the comments box almost exactly matches that created by Facebook: https://developers.facebook.com/docs/plugins/comments/. Yet something was amiss. The usual links that are used throughout Facebook’s comments feature to encourage people to click back to the social network was suspicious. Facebook want you to head back to their social network, while this article wants you to click through top MadBid.com
Having a look underneath the exterior revealed this to be a well constructed fake Facebook comment box, which became clearer after deeper investigation. The images used were taken from the publicly available profile images available on Facebook’s open graph. The same layout, colours and font is used on the page to make it look very much like the well known Facebook feature used on millions of websites today.
By taking the image link it is possible to find the associated profile on Facebook. Reviewing “Alex Lq” and some of the other profiles used on the page these are real facebook accounts of real people. They just do not know that because their profile is used very rarely that they are being exploited as endorsers of a website they are likely to have never seen.
Our friend Alex Lq writes a fantastic review for Madbid.com in fantastic English. Funny that there is absolutely no English text on his page at all (and he is from Mexico). The fact that these comments are associated with real people makes it very difficult to spot the fakes. It is generally only the “it’s too good to be true” scenario, which stimulated this investigation.
This disturbs Coffee Marketing as it undermines the value of social media and if faking social endorsement becomes too wide spread will dilute its impact for our clients, becomes a false economy for marketers and has privacy and exploitation issues for social media users. We therefore decided to follow up with Taboola to see what they had to say about the matter and wrote the following:
Hi, From your widget I was led to this page: http://megabargains24.com/UK/sub/?KW=DSPTBL&CAMP=A64 which contains various fake social media integration functions on the page and uses real people’s profiles to fake positive comments for this supposedly fake article.
I’d like to know whether this kind of content is allowed on your network, what your thoughts are of the quality of this article and whether you try to prevent this kind of content from appearing in your widget at all?
Look forward to hearing from you.
We will report back once we hear anything back from them.
In the meantime the lessons here are that although purchasing likes will cost money and not drive direct value, enhanced reputation from faking social endorsement is a whole new level of sophistication that will catch out many of those less tech savvy. It could pay dividends to the fraudster and must be stopped.
In the long-term the truth will out for companies who use such methods to promote their services. However the impact on the authenticity of social media as a reputation management tool over time could diminish, unless greater authentication is used. Facebook for example could assign a commenter rating to highlight people who regularly comment on articles, so you can trust them more than the person who has only ever made 1 comment.
Amazon experienced an issue with fake reviews and comments and needed to take proactive action to maintain the validity and authenticity of their whole rating system- a system Amazon customers rely on to make their purchases. If this failed how much revenue would be lost? Millions. At least.
The future of trust and authenticity online is at stake and remains to be seen.
How do you see the issue of fake social media comments affecting the value social media brings to businesses? Let us know!