Friday, June 20, 2014

The World = Dhaka, Bangladesh?

In January, I wrote about ZappyLab’s painful experience with accidentally acquiring fake “likes” on Facebook (ZappyLab is a life sciences software startup that I co-founded). It led me to investigate “likes” of various startups and pharmaceuticals, and I admit I felt much better when I realized that Pfizer, Novartis, and Sanofi seem to have fallen into the same trap.

Facebook has been for years denying that the fake likes are a problem for advertisers. In 2012, Facebook responded to a BBC investigation:
 “We’ve not seen evidence of a significant problem,” said a spokesman.“Neither has it been raised by the many advertisers who are enjoying positive results from using Facebook.All of these companies have access to Facebook’s analytics which allow them to see the identities of people who have liked their pages, yet this has not been flagged as an issue [my emphasis].A very small percentage of users do open accounts using pseudonyms but this is against our rules and we use automated systems as well as user reports to help us detect them.”

My post inspired Derek Muller to make a brilliant video on this topic. Facebook response to the video?
Fake likes don’t help us. For the last two years, we have focused on proving that our ads drive business results and we have even updated our ads to focus more on driving business objectives. Those kinds of real-world results would not be possible with fake likes. In addition, we are continually improving the systems we have to monitor and remove fake likes from the system.
Just to be clear, he created a low quality Page about something a lot of people like – cats. He spent $10 and got 150 people who liked cats to like the Page. They may also like a lot of other Pages which does not mean that they are not real people – lots of real people like lots of things [my emphasis].

And a few days ago I noticed that many universities seem to have accumulated fake “likes” as well. I blogged about it, Business Insider covered it, and Facebook replied with:

There are many ways people find Pages to like on Facebook – from someone navigating directly to the Page to like it, to people seeing advertising campaigns, or from Pages appearing in Pages You May Like. Some Pages, including universities with an international reputation, often receive a large number of likes from people around the world and have fans that are dispersed geographically and demographically. These pages are often also featured in Pages You May Like and receive likes from people who aspire to attend or visit the university.

 Since I singled out Harvard in my post, Harvard also commented:

“Harvard is an internationally recognized institution with students, faculty, alumni, and other followers around the world,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “Global interest in Harvard is validated by engagement across all our platforms. Social media is among the many tools we use to connect with the Harvard community and with many others interested in the teaching, learning, and research at Harvard.”

So the Facebook claim is “these are legitimate likes”. If you are a global brand, your “likes” will be global. If you advertise without geo-restrictions, your likes will come from all over the world. Fair enough. Makes sense.

The puzzling part is that the most popular city for the fans of Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge is Dhaka, Bangladesh. You might even say this is slightly suspicious since Dhaka is known as the “hub of click-farms” that produce the fake likes. But hey, coincidences happen, and I suppose many in Bangladesh may "aspire to attend or visit" Harvard.

Three well-know universities are adored by the residents of Dhaka. Fine. Anyone else? Well, it turns out the following global brands also just happen to have their most loyal following in Dhaka, Bangladesh:

If this has nothing to do with click-farms, then the residents of Dhaka, Bangladesh must be the most loving people on the planet - loving everyone and everything, en masse. The above does not fit well with Facebook's position that famous brands "often receive a large number of likes from people around the world and have fans that are dispersed geographically and demographically." Where is the dispersion? Well, perhaps I am cherry-picking too much. Perhaps other famous pages have likes from everywhere? Not so much.

Jakarta, Indonesia: Citi, Intel, Shell
Bangkok, Thailand: CNN, Dell, Honda, KFC, Levis

I am not sure if this is what Facebook means by "dispersion". Since "Egypt, India, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal and Sri Lanka, [are] all countries where click farms are common," the "likes" seem to simply be dispersed between the click-farm locations (with some curious clustering by industry). Is it possible that this overlap is due to chance? Certainly possible. Likely? I don't think so. Since Facebook has lots of data scientists, I'll let them figure out the p-value for the probability that the above is just a coincidence.


  1. I'm usually inclined like you to think where there's smoke there's fire. But on this, it is also possible that, after spending the day clicking away on pages they are instructed to "like," the people who work in click-farms are more likely to get the notion to click on pages they really do like or anyway would like to identify with. That might explain likes from notorious click farm locales that were not paid for. Or the click farm workers may be instructed to click on some pages that people do often click on, to make them seem more real.

  2. Certainly countless small business and startups are trapped into purchasing the fake likes, just as we did. And I am sure many of the famous companies paid for their fakes too. But I absolutely agree that some become the unwitting recipients of the fakes without promoting their page. The problem is not companies paying FB to grow their likes. That's advertising. The problem is the existence of the fakes. Since the FB business model is all about advertising, if a huge fraction of the fans is fake, what are advertisers paying for? The problem is that Facebook keeps pretending that all the Dhaka likes are real.

  3. Thank you -- yes, totally agree with your point that advertisers should not be duped into paying for fakes. My comment was addressing another facet of your post -- the suggestion that because it has so many likes from notorious click-farm regions, Harvard must have bought those likes. (This is the allegation that Business Insider jumped on.) I'm suggesting that there could be an alternative explanation for that.

  4. I think Jim Edwards in the BI article was very careful to note multiple times that the likes, even if fake, are not necessarily purchased.
    I wrote in my original post, "Probably about three million of these are fakes. I just hope they did not pay for this, like we did on PubChase [3]".
    The citation [3] is: "This example (!vf00A) makes it clear how a page can suddenly be flooded with fake likes, completely beyond the control of the owners.
    I know that we paid to promote our page and got fake likes. We know that the US State Department paid $630,000 to Facebook to grow its fan base, and also got Cairo, Egypt as the most popular city. Pretty obvious that many universities are paying for this too. But, of course, I don't know which ones paid and which accidentally got them.
    Unfortunately, most companies, universities, and people are silent because they are embarrassed, so Facebook gets away with it.