How and Why False Flag Pages Are Facebook’s Biggest Threat in 2013
For the past few years there have been few things that have enthralled the digital marketing world in more of a zealous, focused kind of frenzy than Facebook fan pages.
After all, for a brand, agency, musician or even event organizer there are few prizes more alluring than the opportunity to build a thriving viral community where legions of fans congregate to like, share and interact with you. This is the mythical promise of the fan page, and it has been the carrot on a stick of deceptive length that that has seen mega brands like McDonald’s and Ford (to name but a few) spend tens of millions of dollars a year in the aim of building their followings even as allegations of artificial likes and fake users have stalked uneasily in the wings.
A story much less often told, however, is that of supposedly “unbranded” Facebook fan pages and the deceptively shady underworld of misinformation, quasi-fraud and black market economics that has developed around them.
Unbranded Fan Pages? What?
Even the most casual user of Facebook with a moderate network of friends will have come across at least one popular Facebook page that is unaffiliated (at least, at first glance) with any major brand, celebrity or commercial organization. Typically, these pages are started by everyday users looking to share their particular brand of humour or point of view, or to share and aggregate memes and macros. Every now and then, one in a thousand strikes a chord and attracts a massive following and, in doing so, achieves what many major brands spending millions can only dream of: an avid, engaged audience of potential consumers hanging on (and indeed, sharing) every post.
As a case in point, this is exactly what happened when university student Elise Andrews started a page called “I F**cking Love Science” early in 2012. Within just ten months, the group she started on a whim had accumulated over 2.3 million followers and to this day each post generates likes and comments in the tens of thousands. George Takei did the same thing and has ultimately built his personal page into one of the most popular on Facebook. A post on George’s page that netted less than a few thousand likes or comments would likely have him scratching his head and wondering what went wrong. On the contrary, if General Motors managed that with even one of their regular updates you could be sure their social marketing team would take to dancing in the streets with unbridled joy before they had even checked to see if most of the comments were positive or not.
But for all the high talk of how much more engaged most Facebook users are with seemingly non-commercial pages, all is not roses and candy canes in the world of the independent Facebook community. As with so many things that are shown to be valuable for businesses, some false flag marketers (that is, marketers who specialize in disguising their motives to the general public) have been quick to move in and take advantage.
These days popular Facebook fan pages have become a black market commodity in and of themselves. Because it takes a considerable amount of time and effort to build a popular fan page, those with a large number of followers and a high edgerank (an engagement metric Facebook uses to determine how many fans an individual page post will reach) can be sold for thousands to companies looking to covertly market to a large audience of unsuspecting consumers. In this instance, what starts off as an authentic page gets covertly transitioned into something that is anything but and the regular, loyal fans often do not realize the transition has taken place at all.
Some pages are even built and developed from scratch by hijacking a popular topic or theme while making no mention of the commercial interests at work behind the scenes. This can be achieved via “like scams” which guilt or dupe users into liking misleading content all in the name of building its following and engagement or by equally quick, essentially meaningless means.
Most troubling of all, however, is when outright theft is the means to the end. Indeed, it is all too common an occurrence when a popular fan pages are stolen from their original creators through deception or hacking. In a recent discussion thread on Reddit, user FateAV explained how this process commonly unfolds:
I’m an admin on a few large [300k+] pages. Generally the way it works is like this. First an annoying teenager who’s popular makes a Facebook page. Somewhere between 50-100k likes, the owner almost invariable has their page hijacked from them by either social engineering or in more rare cases phishing or keyloggers.
Next up the new admin posts the same stuff as the old one. If the admin has been doing this for a while, they usually post more of this sappy like+Share, etc stuff [which] is actually PERFECT to grow a page very rapidly… it’s just a way of gaming the edgerank system to raise the actual reach of posts and the “talking about” statistic on the page [which is a major factor in page pricing]
Alternatively, if the page has more identity, such as the larger “community” pages, the page’s character can be monetised through T-shirts, related websites, Youtube videos, blog AdSense revenue, or a few other means. These admins also tend to sell advertisements to smaller pages on a per-post basis, usually by sharing a picture from the smaller page and casually tagging them in the description.
More often, however, the page ends up in the hands of one of the hijacker guilds on Facebook, who hijack pages, rapidly grow them to a couple of million likes, and then sell them for a few tens of thousands of dollars to marketing firms.
The marketing firms in turn hire young, attractive teenagers to pose in “casual” pictures with their products in the background for easy product placement delivery to millions of people via Facebook, or the more amateur ones start spamming websites and other Facebook pages on them.
The chilling revelations offered by FateAV’s insights paint a dark picture of a duplicitous world where many of the communities that millions of Facebook users cherish and frequent are not always what they seem. All of this in turn has lead to the illicit formation of a rapidly growing fan page “black market” where pages are built, stolen or bought for commercial abuse while their unknowing fans are none the wiser.
But Why Does it All Matter?
It would be far to easy to look at all of this and confidently conclude that the unsuspecting fans of many of these pages are the only real losers in the equation, but they are not. In fact, it is Facebook that has the most to lose by the back alley economics that are rotting away the value of its fan pages from the inside out. Given that a huge portion of its annual ad revenue comes from propagating this value to major brands, the stakes couldn’t be higher for the world’s largest social network.
To get to the heart of this problem and its implications, its important first to go back to the topic of Facebook’s “edgerank” algorithm. As of a major 2012 update the network unveiled, it’s not simply enough just to have a page with a large following. With the overhaul of its edgerank system, Facebook uses the number of interactions a page’s past posts have received in order to determine how many fans will be reached by its future posts. In other words, given that the average Facebook user is connected to up to 80 brands, groups and events, the edgerank algorithm is meant to prevent individual newsfeeds from becoming an overwhelming and indecipherable cacophony of noise.
At its core, the idea is one with merit. Edgerank as a concept has a kind of Darwinian thinking at its core where fan pages that demonstrate an ability (or should I say, “fitness”) to generate interest reap the rewards of reaching a larger percentage of their fans in the future. Not surprisingly, though, it’s still a system that generated significant controversy when the change was officially announced last year (George Takei even wrote about it in his recent book). This outrage was particularly aggravated when Facebook simultaneously announced the release of its “Sponsored Stories” product which would allow fan page operators to pay to artificially increase their edgerank on a post-by-post basis. Suddenly, the edgerank of a page had become just as, if not more, important than its number of followers. Now, for the first time ever, a page’s engagement was a commodity in and of itself.
Where this becomes a big problem however, is when you consider that pages clearly identified as branded or commercial are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to edgerank versus those that are not. Studies and polls consistently show that many social media users don’t like brands intruding on their “social world” and this is likely largely why the engagement metrics of Facebook’s most popular “unbranded” pages are so much higher than those run by major companies. But now you have both types of pages, the honest and upfront versus the dishonest and the misleading, competing for the same prime real-estate on a user’s newsfeed. The only difference is, if you’re Facebook, the former side is made up of your biggest customers and the latter contributes next to nothing to your bottom line while having a distinct advantage.
A Problem That Needs Solving. Fast.
Forget about total users, pageviews, or even new monthly registration metrics: Facebook’s most valuable assets are consumer and brand trust. As long as the average user believes that Facebook is the best and most convenient way to interact with the people and content that they care about, and as long as brands believe that it is the best and most effective platform to reach those users, then Facebook will survive, grow and thrive. Fan pages are supposed to be one of the core pillars of that goal (while also being a central vehicle for its revenue model through page advertising and sponsored stories), but the erosion of their integrity has the potential to be disastrous. Combating that erosion should be at the top of Facebook’s priority list.
If not, well, perhaps 2013 will be Google+’s year at last.
Also, be sure to check out the rest of our “Brands, The Internet & You” series: