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How A Team of Developers Plan to Kill Click Farms

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How A Team of Developers Plan to Kill Click Farms

Have you ever seen a tweet and been mindblown by how many likes it had? Chances are you probably have. But have you ever wondered why it had so many and how many of those were actually real people? Maybe, maybe not. But would you be surprised if I told you that a vast majority of what you’re experiencing online is all make believe? And that there is a war going on for your attention? Stick with me.. It’s going to get interesting.

Why posts go viral?

So there are actually a few reasons why a post can go “viral.” The post is super relatable, the right people liked and shared it, engagement algorithms picked it up, someone has paid to advertise it or maybe a celebrity with a large following shared it. Being viral on the internet means increased visibility, and visibility can be monetized. 

According to Apex Marketing Group, the Nike ad with Colin Kaepernick that went viral generated $43M worth of free marketing in its first 24 hours. Studies from quantMedia shows that Donald Trump rode a nice $5BN in free media to the White House. The “catch (cash) me outside” girl turned her Dr. Phil viral moment into a million dollar career and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

It’s no secret that there is big money to be made in being viral. This has led to brands taking increasingly shady measures to do anything they can to amp their visibility as much as possible. Even if that means hiring click farms to fake it until they make it.

But there are unethical ways to attain virality

At this point you are probably asking yourself, “WTF is a Click Farm?!” Well, click farms are pretty much what they sound like. They are companies that use any means necessary to click website elements to generate fraudulent activity just to alter the visibility of data online, and in some cases they even target people and brands directly. Click farm activities are implicitly fraudulent. They are manipulating people to behave in calculated ways based on the perceived actions of others but it can be even darker than that.

Breaking down a click farm

Imagine you are a brand, and you sell something. That something could be an ideology like a politician, it could be a service that streams online video content, or a company that sells products like shoes or watches. At some point in your lifecycle you are going to turn to marketing to try and persuade people to consume your products. Now imagine you have a competitor that will do anything to see you fail. So they hire a click farm.

A click farm can take on a couple roles in this scenario. They can target your ad campaigns and drain them of revenue. They could even create content that might show your ads on their content, autoclick those ads and you would be paying your competitors to help kill your visibility. Then they could start targeting your followers on social media and showing them your competitor while at the same time amplifying your competitor’s social metrics. They could start spreading FUD (fear, uncertainly, doubt; for the uninitiated) about your product, amplify that FUD, and then shill your competitor’s product while amplifying that as well.

These are just a few scenarios and as you can see, the shit can get deep pretty fast. Click farms can cost your company a ton of money in short order. Click farms are pretty low cost to run. One click farm was found to have around 305,000 sim chips, tons of PCs, 100’s of working phones and all it took was a group of like 5 or 10 people to do it. Some are even more sophisticated than that. 

The U.S. State Department spent $630,000 on Facebook ads and only got a 2% engagement RoI. This led them to the conclusion that the vast majority of the followers they paid for were fraudulent. Click farms will “Like” tons of stuff in order to mask their behavior. Which then begs the question, “Why aren’t companies like Google and Facebook doing more about it?” Well the answer is pretty simple. Because the irony of all this is that they are one of the biggest beneficiaries of Click farms.

Can this be stopped?

But what could they do if they had to comply with, some sort of legislation to prevent, say, Russian meddling in US elections? Well, the easiest solution would be to implement KYC. And before all you privacy gurus jump down my throat and preach to me about the validity of anonymity, I already know and agree with everything you are probably going to say. The KYC I’m suggesting should be 100% voluntary and consumers should have the option to opt out at any time.

KYC is an acronym for Know Your Customer. KYC is generally used in financial technology to prevent money laundering. KYC, however, usually fails at preventing money laundering because money laundering is usually handled MUCH higher up in the banks, but that’s neither here nor there. Anyways, KYC is the simple act of sharing some personal information about you in such a way that validates you are who you say you are and that you only have one account.

The solution. In detail.

You are going to say, “But Chris, do we REALLLLY need Facebook and Google to have more information about us than they already do?” And I’ll say, “Well they could probably already clone your personality based on your likes alone but hey, I get it, Mark Zuckerberg is most likely a super villain and he shouldn’t have your passport and driver’s license and a picture of you smiling with both of them. Agreed.”

So I come with an even BETTER solution. What if Facebook could just hit an API to a service that distills your existence down to Boolean datapoints? This service requests periodic peaks at your private data and then destroys all evidence of said data, aside from some cryptographic signatures of the data and then add you to a database as a Boolean datapoint. Does pseudo-anonymous user 0xaabceh exist? True or false? Would you feel more comfortable then? I think you would.

Like I said earlier, I think any social network that offers a solution like this should make it voluntary. I should be able to briefly reveal to a social network that I am indeed a real person with very little exposure to my personal data and be able to move around in a space only occupied by other people who have done the same. In other words, I want voluntary sybil free zones.

Parting thoughts

With this kind of KYC, every user on every social media can be authenticated. This could signal the end of click farms – no fake users, no fake “likes,” no “social meddling,” no changing public perception on a mass scale. What do you think about it?

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Entrepreneur, philanthropist, software engineer, photographer, founder of Expanse, President of the Borderless #Charity, CEO of Borderless Corp.

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