The Problem With Facebook Fraud


My response to Facebook’s response to me:

FB: I’d like to be clear that he intentionally created a low quality Page about something a lot of people like – cats.

Me: Correct – the goal here was to see if people would blindly like anything, including a page that clearly calls them an idiot if they like it. And they did. The implication is they never even looked at the page, and this is backed up by statistics on the page. To me this is not genuine behavior. I don’t know anyone who would like a page without either knowing the brand or checking out the page first.

FB: He spent $10 and got 150 people who liked cats to like the Page.



Me: Why can’t they get the facts right? I spent $10 and got 39 likes (much faster than I expected and from only the US, Canada, Australia and the UK). Then I spent a further $15 and ended up with a total of 262 likes.

FB: 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.

Me: OK, here’s the thing. The global average likes per person is 40. For most countries it looks like 20 and below.
Virtually everyone who liked my page liked in excess of 900 things (I say virtually because I could only spot-check random profiles and then the number of likes is not easy to ascertain – you have to scroll for miles through their likes and then count using a query of the code). These are clearly not typical accounts.
Now the claim this “does not mean that they are not real people” might be valid. They may well be accounts made or controlled by an actual human (could be an employee at a clickfarm, could be someone who is paid to like pages, eg. Paid-to-like dot com). However I think their likes are not genuine. So this is a distinction I imagine FB would not be keen to make. There may be ‘fake’ likes coming from ‘real’ profiles.
Then they might throw up their hands and say ‘even if what he’s saying is true, how could we ever deal with this kind of activity?’ I would say if there is a page like that never results in engagement with the page, it is a bogus like and the like should be deleted, not necessarily the account, but certainly the like.

FB: Also, his example for his own page from May 2012 is almost two years old, and as indicated above, we have significantly improved these systems over the past two years.”

Me: This is perhaps most worrying of all. In essence: in the old days, sure fake likes could happen, but not now. What troubles me most about this admission is they have done nothing to correct the problem. If they’re aware those 80,000 likes are dead weight they should have eliminated them. And they have since benefited from those 80,000 likes when I paid to try to reach them. I hadn’t dug into my demo data so I didn’t know how bad the problem was and I paid to boost posts out to these useless likes. That is a problem!

Reporter: Some of the people who were passing around your video this week cited as a reason to be skeptical of Facebook’s market valuation. Of course, it is very difficult to know just how big a problem clickfraud is. Do you have any evidence that gaining likes actually helps you?

Me: I was thinking about this a bit last night. In the past I have run Google Adwords campaigns and I never saw much suspicious click activity. But people have rightly made the point that some clicks in any campaign are bound not to be genuine.
But here is the big problem with fake likes on Facebook. Unlike a fraudulent click on google these fakes stay with you forever (even two years later when Facebook’s Fraud detection has moved on). They weigh on your engagement and edgerank because the accounts never intended to engage with you. And then you end up paying again to boost the post out to them – and they were never real in the first place!

For the past week, I’ve been running a very successful small business via Facebook. It is called VirtualBagel and more than 3,000 people from around the world have decided they “like” it – despite the fact that it does, well, absolutely nothing. But in running this non-existent firm I have learned quite a bit about the value of those “likes” prized by so many big brands, and the usefulness of Facebook’s advertising.

When social media consultant Michael Tinmouth told me of his concerns about the returns his small business clients were getting from advertising on Facebook, I decided I needed to mount an experiment. Could I persuade Facebook users to click on adverts for an imaginary business and like it?

The idea for VirtualBagel was born from something my oldest son came up with many years ago, as he watched a picture download very slowly from the internet onto our first computer: “What if we could download doughnuts too?” So my business was going to be called VirtualDoughnut – until I realised I needed a copyright-free photo, and I had only bagels, not doughnuts to hand.

I set up a page, with very basic information: “We send you bagels via the internet – just download and enjoy.” The fuller description talked of a dream of delivering virtual bagels over the internet to a world of virtual eaters. But nothing more.

Screenshot of VirtualBagel's Facebook page

Next, I created my first advert, which is a fairly simple process. You choose your objective – mine was to reach people who were most likely to “like” my page – how much you want to spend – I opted for $10 (about £6.50) – and where you want it seen.

I chose the United States, the UK, Russia, India, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. I narrowed it down slightly by targeting under 45-year-olds interested in cookery and consumer electronics, but was told that would still give me a potential audience of 112 million customers.

Then I pressed the button and waited. Within minutes people were starting to “like” my meaningless site, and within 24 hours I had 1,600 likes – and had spent my $10. Where were they from?

Screenshot of Ahmed Ronaldo's Facebook page

It seemed VirtualBagel was hugely popular in Egypt, Indonesia and the Philippines, but just about nobody in the US or the UK had any interest. And amongst my likers were some interesting characters, notably Ahmed Ronaldo. He was from Cairo – the city where my page is still most liked – but seemed to work at Real Madrid, and his profile consisted of nothing but pictures of Cristiano Ronaldo.

What was more interesting was what else he liked besides VirtualBagel – more than 3,000 pages, ranging from a retailer called Titchy Kitch London to Mr H Menswear to Pets World. What exactly was going on?

Over the next few days, I tinkered with my advert, removing a number of countries so that I was just targeting the US, the UK and India. The “likes” continued to mount, though very few came from the US or UK. After four days, my page was “liked” by nearly 3,000 people.

Then for one final day, I decided to advertise solely to UK Facebook users. The results were frankly disappointing – new “likes” slowed to a trickle. After spending a total of $60 (£40) VirtualBagel had built an audience in Egypt and India, but was not making an impact in the lucrative UK or US markets.

Facebook like sign

Then I sat down to analyse the results, with the aid of Facebook’s adverts manager page. I’m a newcomer to the arcane world of online advertising metrics but one thing leaped out. When my advert was broadly targeted the click-through rate – the number of clicks on the advert divided by the number of times it was shown – was 0.55%. That had generated nearly 3,000 “likes” over four days.

But when I restricted the advert to UK users, the click through rate fell to 0.059% – about a 10th as many. And in the one day that advert ran, I achieved just 17 “likes” for my $10.

So, it seems that Facebook adverts can be very effective in generating interest in your business from certain countries but not in the US or the UK. And I think my experiment raises a lot of questions.

Who are these people in some countries who are clicking in an apparently random way on thousands of Facebook adverts and earning the network a small fee each time?

Is Facebook worried that there seem to be a number of fake profiles in certain countries generating fake “likes” and so devaluing the worth of its advertising system?

Is the network being as active as it should be in addressing a problem which is generating lots of revenue for its bottom line?

Now Facebook, it is important to say, feels my experiment is worthless because I have simply failed to target my advert in a way which delivers useful results. The company also says it sees no significant issue with fake profiles and is acting to discourage the practice.

The question you may ask is why does any of this matter? Well, Facebook has just arrived on the stock market with a valuation of $100bn, which was entirely based on the promise that advertising revenue will continue to grow from last year’s $4bn.

So if advertisers – big or small – start losing confidence in what the Facebook platform has to offer, then that will be very serious indeed for the company’s future prospects.


The State Department spent over $630,000 to increase Facebook “likes” for four of its pages on the social-networking site, according to an inspector general’s report.

(Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

The efforts, which involved advertising initiatives between 2011 and March 2013, increased the fan numbers for each page from about 100,000 to more than 2 million, the report said. But employees complained that the agency was “buying fans,” according to the inspector general.

The State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs came up with the campaign as a way to engage with foreign audiences, the report said.

The IG found that the number of Facebook users who actually engaged with each page was relatively small, with only about 2 percent “liking,” sharing or commenting on any item within the previous week.

The department’s ad campaign became less effective in September 2012, when Facebook changed its approach to users’ news feeds. The agency would not have to pay for sponsored ads to keep its content visible to people who have already “liked” its pages.

“This change sharply reduced the value of having large numbers of marginally interested fans,” the report said.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said during a Wednesday briefing with reporters that the agency had reduced its spending on Facebook advertising and that it plans to implement the inspector general’s recommendations.

Psaki said the Bureau of International Information Programs now spends $2,500 per month on online advertising. “I think that’s a clear indication we’ve taken the recommendations seriously and put changes in place,” she added.


Many of us are trusting. We like to believe the best in people – in their honesty, integrity, and good intentions. For society to function, this is an inherently necessity of the majority.

But after writing an article describing the loss of organic Facebook reach, I was tuned in to an even more shocking situation that completely explains the massive growth in likes some readers reported on their Pages.

One of the reasons I love writing, and often still love reading comments, is that through my articles, I learn more about the world from others with experiences that run parallel to mine.

After my plunging Facebook organic reach piece ran, a reader who wishes to remain anonymous (for reasons that will hopefully become clear as I continue) pointed me to a baffling Facebook situation that, over the past couple of years, has spiraled out of control.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Monitoring your likes and interests

In September of 2013, my anonymous source (who we will call “Bob” for the sake of simplicity), seemed to have his popular Facebook Page, along with friends whose pages share the same general interest, added to the international Page Suggestions list.

What are Page Suggestions? In 2013, Facebook started to push its “Suggested Posts” or “Suggested Pages” ads and links to news feeds with the attempt to allow users to follow other brands that followed their similar interests.

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