Jan 9 1:33 PM

Who says you can’t buy friends?

An advertisement for San Jose International Airport in California encourages users to "like" the airport's Facebook page.

Some people call it unethical. Others say it’s just a new way of doing business. We’re talking about buying social media followers. By some estimates, the industry may have hit $360 million last year. Some experts say that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“It’s hard to say exactly how big the industry is,” Dave Kerpen, CEO of Likeable Local, told Al Jazeera. “It could be as many as hundreds of millions of fake accounts that are out there. This could be as much as a billion-dollar industry within the next few years.”

It’s marketing 101. You need to jump-start people and create the hype. It’s called just simple smoke and mirrors.

Heddi Cundle

Founder, myTab

The practice is gaining popularity because size does matter in the world of social media. “Having a lot of Twitter followers or Facebook followers, I think there’s a sense that you look very influential,” said Eric Steuer, community director of Wired magazine. “It looks like you’re part of the conversation, that a lot of people are looking to you for opinions and information.”

In addition to making you look “in the know,” experts point out, social media followings are actually being used by more and more employers to gauge whether someone would make a good employee.

“If the employees of your company can get the word out through dozens, hundreds, thousands, or millions of social media followers, that does become pretty valuable to the company,” said Kerpen. “Fake customers can create a perception that you're popular.” Well, then, perception is reality, and those fake followers might help you attract real followers and real customers, he adds.

Analysts do point out, however, that if you are found out it could seriously damage your reputation, credibility and image.

How it works

For just a few dollars, you can go to one of the dozens of websites of eBay peddlers who will see your “bots” — computer-generated accounts. With the click of a mouse, you can buy everything from Facebook friends to Twitter followers to YouTube views. According to a study by the research firm Barracuda Labs, the average price of buying 1,000 Twitter followers is $18.

No cyber moral compass?

The practice of buying social media followers obviously brings up huge ethical issues. Some people say it’s akin to telling a lie. Others say it’s simply a way of doing business in the world we live in today.

Take San Francisco–based Heddi Cundle. In 2011, she launched myTab, a travel-gifting website that invites friends and family to make contributions to a wanna-be traveler's dream vacation. Like many middle-class entrepreneurs, however, she found starting a business to be a financial challenge, to say the least.

“You have to bootstrap, and you spend absolutely no money, you ration your ramen noodles. This is how you live,” Cundle said.

With little money for marketing and few resources to attract new customers, she turned to a company called Fiver. For just $10 she bought 400 followers on Facebook and Twitter.  

“It’s marketing 101. You need to jump-start people and create the hype. It’s called just simple smoke and mirrors,” said Cundle.

"There's always been lots of ways that companies or individuals can make themselves look bigger than they really are with a little marketing savvy and a little PR savvy,” said Kerpen. “So is this really that different than that?  I'm not so sure.”

Today, Cundle says, myTab is valued at $4 million. She says that’s in no small part due to the ways in which the initial followers she purchased helped her attract real customers and a bigger network.

“We've now got, like, two and a half thousand which are real followers on Twitter, and we've got over 8,000 likes on Facebook, and that was the accumulation of spending $10 on acquiring dummy users. So that's an incredibly good rate of return.”

Social media fights back

There is nothing illegal about creating, buying or selling social media followers, but social media companies are not taking the practice lightly. Many have developed algorithms to see if followers are real.

“Facebook and Twitter are public companies now,” said Kerpen. “If it turns out that their user numbers aren't really what we think and they don't really have all these users ... that affects the value of their companies.”

In its latest filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Facebook estimated that as many as 12 million of its more than 1 billion users were “undesirable accounts.”

A spokesperson for Facebook told Al Jazeera, “We've built a combination of automated and manual systems to block accounts used for fraudulent purposes such as generating fake clicks or followers, and we are constantly improving these systems to help us better identify suspicious behavior. We also take action against sellers of fake clicks and help shut them down.”

Steuer of Wired said that controlling fraudulent followings won't be easy.

“As long as the number of followers that an account has is a currency that people are interested in having more of, there's no stopping it,” he said. “These companies can figure out ways to subvert algorithms and identify fake accounts in a variety of ways.”

The old-fashioned approach

Analysts say that if you want to build your following the old-fashioned way and attract real people, the best approach is to share interesting content. They also recommend advertising on social media sites. And don't forget to “like” and “follow” people back. 

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