Farming clicks to unethically boost followership on social media

The desire to get more likes and followers, and to draw more engagements on profiles and posts has given rise to a new shadowy industry, known as click farms.

Updated - December 14, 2020 03:58 pm IST

Published - December 14, 2020 01:38 pm IST

Farming clicks to unethically boost followership on social media.

Farming clicks to unethically boost followership on social media.

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An illicit Instagram click farm, based in Central Asia, was discovered last week by researchers at cybersecurity firm, vpnMentor.

Operating globally, the click farm runs a highly automated process and manages over 10,000 proxy Instagram profiles that are based in countries worldwide.

Each account had its own avatar and bio, appearing to join Instagram from all over the world. These fake accounts would publish posts, view others’ posts, follow, react and engage with profiles.

What are click farms?

The desire to get more likes and followers, and to draw more engagements on profiles and posts has given rise to a new shadowy industry, known as click farms.

Click farms are a type of click fraud intended to artificially boost the status of a client’s website, product or service. It is a business that hires people to click on websites’ elements, surf the website for certain period to increase its engagement.

Available through resellers on internet, click farms operate both as a business offering and as an independent enterprise, aimed at proliferating clicks for several purposes.

Why click farms and how does it work?

A business or an individual new to the market with few followers online might feel the need to increase exposure, which makes them turn to Click farms. Besides, this method of expanding followership is quite inexpensive.

Reports in recent years have suggested that this method is also used by influencers and celebrities to inflate their likes and followers.

Several businesses run online social media marketing campaigns on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to increase their followers. Not all campaigns succeed. So, to get the desired engagement, businesses or individuals sometimes prefer to buy likes and followers.

In addition to increasing followers and likes, click farms are used to generate websites traffic, channelling traffic to fraudulent sites.

Click farms are generally based in countries with weak data regulations and oversight. They create fake accounts to trawl social media and other websites with posts and profiles by clicking on paid advertisements. This inflates a person’s following and helps them earn income sponsorship posts and advertising.

These farms use proxy servers and IP addresses to hide its activity as signing up from same geographical location would be flagged as spam by social media platforms.

A farm could be set up with just a laptop and a few mobile phones, or it can have a huge setup with thousands of phones, computers and people. Some people could be remote workers hired through click selling sites that outsource human click activity.

Are they legal?

As it might seem, click farms are not a legitimate business model and use unethical tricks to earn profit.

While there are no regulations that make click farms illegal, it does breach some consumer protection laws and mislead individuals.

However, under Chinese Anti-Unfair Competition Law, it is deemed illegal under stealing trade secrets and expanding the scope and definition of bribery.

People working in this business get paid pennies, coupled with long hours of work. Click farms operate in dingy rooms where employees sit facing a blank wall and clicking as instructed.

There have been multiple raids on Click farms in the past where the police confiscated hundreds of mobile phones running with unauthorised SIMs to stop them from continuing the operation.

Back in 2017, Thailand police department uncovered a major click farm in Bangkok run by three Chinese people, with 500 smartphones and 350,000 SIM cards that sold likes and views for Chinese messaging app WeChat. The trio were charged for smuggling smartphones and working with unregistered SIM cards.

As most of these click farms are based in locations with less stringent employment and labour laws, main legal issues revolve around employee rights, working conditions and wages.

Besides, the practice is discouraged by social media platforms. Facebook for instance, does not allow buying likes and warns of lower engagement if found guilty.

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