How much do you like turnips? According to one Facebook page, 1,435 people love the bulbous root vegetable enough to have taken the time to click a small thumbs up icon that tells the world just how much they do.
But what if the humble turnip wasn’t content enough with that modest smattering of appreciation? What if it had grand aspirations of fans stretching into six figures; the certainty of a status update being 'liked' within 30 seconds of being posted; the knowledge that whatever funny pictures of cat-shaped turnips it finds will be shared by legions of loyal followers?
Because really, building up a solid following on social media is nowadays not so much a form of appreciation so much as a currency of cultural power and popularity. It doesn’t matter that in the real, tangible world the turnip is relegated to the back of the kitchen cupboard. On Facebook, with enough likes it has the power to build a brand, interact with users and gradually over time influence public opinion.
The power of Facebook likes is evident in the fact that movie posters and music flyers are often now emblazoned with the current total of their likes and followers. We’re living in a world where the quality of a person, product or service can be deduced by the number of people who’ve given it the virtual thumbs up - and that’s turned those little likes into a valuable form of business.
The trouble is, as with some of the most valuable businesses today there exists a black market - and even presidential candidates have been accused of exploiting it. The fake like business is booming, with online dealers dishing out numbers for as little as £11.50 a pop for 1,000.
With a small investment, businesses can have access to thousands of profiles set up for the purpose of glorifying their company and adding value to their name. However, the issue is that as with all forms of commerce, oversupply has in fact devalued the Facebook like to the point where the numbers have been stripped of any form of meaning entirely.
A true like from a genuine Facebook user has value not only as an endorsement, but for the fact that if a living, breathing person thumbs-ups your business it means that any updates you then post may work their way onto that person’s news feed. By viewing the post, they may then be directed to a product or service resulting in a purchase, or they may simply be reminded that you exist, providing an easy form of advertising.
Fake likes, on the other hand, come from fake accounts run by robots or poorly paid workers whose sole purpose is to click a button. Likes from these Facebook accounts may seem to add, ahem, 'face' value, but they won’t really net a business anything beyond a few appreciative nods for their social media standing. Robots can’t buy products, endorse claims, share updates or help promote anything beyond being a notch on the virtual popularity post. Business opportunities cannot be sought and interest cannot be generated when the only users seeing your posts are people that don’t actually exist.
Indeed, rather than adding value to the market, fake likes could actually cost genuine businesses thousands of pounds. If a company pays Facebook money to post an ad on the right-hand side of the page with the aim of generating interest, every time a like is sourced through a click on the ad the company will be charged a fee by Facebook. That’s not a problem if the person clicking the account is genuine because the company will hopefully recoup their costs in a sale, but if tens of thousands of fake accounts are clicking 'like' on a page, that’s thousands of pounds down the drain with absolutely no benefit for the vendor.
But Facebook is not the only social media platform to be affected by a flurry of fake accounts. Twitter and YouTube are also key players in the underground fake economy where status is generated by followers. The ability to police them, however, is limited.
"The fake social underground business is currently in a grey area among laws," said Jason Ding, research Scientist at Barracuda labs whose team last year uncovered the Mitt Romney Twitter follower scandal. "It's not ethical for users to buy followers or likes, but there are no laws to stop them; in certain circumstances, vendors are covering themselves with an "organic" social promoting/SEO name, which makes it harder to distinguish what is fake."
And whilst this fierce economy booms, trading fake followers and likes at a rate of knots, where is the turnip in all of this? It’s still at the back of the cupboard, in the same place it always was, with nothing more than a few empty thumbs up to its name.
Image Credit: Flickr (sofiabudapest)