The Big, Insidious Business of Social Network Fakes

Hiring people to create fake online profiles and post comments on web sites is a booming business in China. This custom-written spam “poses a concrete threat to online communities,” say researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara.

Online postings written for hire pose "a concrete threat to online communities" says a new paper.

Image courtesy of Flickr user stgermh.

The Internet is full of fakes. Specifically, fake profiles of people using fake names.

While some are people with real opinions who just want to be anonymous, these fake profiles are increasingly part of organized, for-pay efforts that hire people to create accounts under false names and use those accounts to post positive or negative online reviews, push a company brand or political message or make an online site look popular.

The challenge for companies is that the issue is big, and it’s only going to get worse.

According the November 2011 paper “Serf and Turf: Crowdturfing for Fun and Profit,” by researchers in the department of computer science at the University of California Santa Barbara, “campaigns on these systems are highly effective at reaching users, and their continuing growth poses a concrete threat to online communities such as social networks, both in the US and elsewhere.”

The term “crowdturfing” is a new one. It’s a combination of “crowd sourcing” (using the brainpower of the masses to help with a task) and “astroturfing” (informational campaigns that look like grassroots efforts but really are sponsored by organizations).

Ben Zhao, the associate professor at UCSB who led the research, told the Boston Globe’s Gareth Cook that it was his work with RenRen, a Facebook-like social network in China, that showed him the degree of the problem.

“RenRen provided [Zhao] with a large set of accounts it had shut down for abuse, such as spreading spam or viruses,” writes Cook in “A Dark Force, Unleashed Online.” “As Zhao and his graduate students looked through the blocked RenRen profiles, though, they found that many looked quite convincing, nothing like the usual computer-generated nonsense. People just glancing at one of the profiles would probably think it came from a real person; they might read the opinions, and perhaps click on a link or two. ‘They looked too real,’ says Zhao, ‘to be machine-generated.’”

Zhao found a thriving business in China to produce the bespoke spam. Cook writes that the website Zhubajie “publishes offers for work like singing the praises of a particular dress on social media. The pay for each of these jobs is measured in pennies, but Zhao says there are some people earning several thousand dollars a year, a living in China. And the activity is growing quickly. Zhoa’s computer surveillance found about 100 crowdturfing campaigns advertised per month on Zhubaijie in 2007, and recently it was nearly 10,000.”

The UCSB paper states that “crowdturfing systems in the U.S. are very active, and are supported by an international workforce,” especially from India. Zhao told MIT Technology Review, in “Hidden Industry Dupes Social Media Users,” that Zhubajie processes over a million dollars every month for crowdturfing jobs.

"This industry is millions of dollars per year already and [shows] roughly exponential growth," Zhao added. "I think we're still in the early stages of this phenomenon."

7 Comments On: The Big, Insidious Business of Social Network Fakes

  • robert | January 13, 2012

    Thanks for helping expanding awareness of this topic.

    I call it FRO – Fake Review Optimization, but Crowdturfing has a nice ring to it…

    Regardless of the name, is beginning to create a challenge for travel review sites, like TripAdvisor where hoteliers are learning that as with Search Engine Optimization, winding up at top of a list can be profitable.

    Here is a series of five articles I authored on the topic for travel tech site Tnooz –

    Social media and SEO created a mutant in travel; Introducing Fake Review Optimization:

    Fake Review Optimization; How black hat masters beat the travel system:

    How to combat Fake Review Optimization in travel:

    Where next for travel user reviews, fake content and website publishers:

    So where can the industry turn to for a dose of Fake Review Optimisation? Many places:

    The problem is not just China. The last article highlights a number of groups based in the west brazenly promoting their services.

  • Leslie Brokaw | January 19, 2012

    Thanks for the links, Robert. “Fake Review Optimization” has a nice ring to it, too. . .

  • joel.chudleigh | January 27, 2012

    Really interesting piece; I have not come across this kind of spam before; only the obvious poorly done kind that is all over the place. If it is so strategically planned and real looking then it is going to be difficult to stop. Google are still struggling with spam link building in the SERPs so how they and others will deal with issue is concerning.

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  • alok dutta | February 13, 2014

    This is Really sad news

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