Buy friends online [Sunday Times (Islamabad)]
(Sunday Times (Islamabad) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Friendship is cheap, I recently discovered.
This week, in one day, I bought more than 1,500 friends on Facebook ($3) and 15,000 followers on Twitter ($14).
More than 4,200 people "liked" a photo I posted on Instagram ( $11) and another 2,000 people "liked" my silly petition on Facebook calling on the late American singer Elvis Presley to have a concert in Singapore ($2).
The total price of such instant popularity: $30.
Welcome to the murky world of social networking, where practically anything can be bought - friends, followers, subscribers, "likes", page views, even comments and retweets.
Besides Facebook and Twitter, it is happening on video-sharing platforms YouTube and Vine, and virtual mood board Pinterest too.
Two months ago, the winner of an online contest in Singapore involving Facebook "likes" admitted to trading currency from online game MapleStory for "likes".
He said he won the MapleStory items on his own merit and did not use money to purchase "likes".
The contest organisers, restaurant chain Poulet, let him keep the prize, which was a trip to Paris for two people..
But websites such as Swenzy, Social Yup and Seoclerks feature companies and individuals eagerly offering fake supporters for cash.
Internet security experts say the fake support comes from bots, which is short for "robots".
These are software applications programmed to run automated tasks in the background.
While they have been around for as long as computers and were previously used to generate spam and capture usernames and passwords, their more recent uses include generating fake social media profiles and likes.
Says Mr Chai Chin Loon, 50, chief operating officer of Assurity Trusted Solutions, an IT security firm: "Modern bots are generally good at emulating human interactions.
"With greater computational power, bots are able to process greater amount of data in order to make themselves more 'human-like'."
Indeed, some of my fake friends have profile photos and real-sounding names. Their profiles also listed their jobs and the universities they graduated from.
They behave like human beings, they share photos, write comments and invite me to play Candy Crush.
They hail from around the world including the United States, Holland, Denmark, New Zealand, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia.
Acquiring these fake friends is simple. Place an order online - US$1 (S$1.25) can buy you 500 Facebook friends - pay with a credit card or PayPal, and the notifications will come rolling in within minutes.
Service providers say this practice is rampant. So do bloggers and social media experts, although few are willing to point fingers.
People and companies do this to appear more popular than they really are and to influence public opinion.
Swenzy, a social media marketing company in the United States, says it has about 1,000 regular clients from Singapore. These business owners and individuals place orders every month, says Swenzy's founder and managing director, who wanted to be known as Mr Simon Z, 21.
The most popular service is buying Facebook "likes" on business pages, he says.
Adds the Russian who dropped out of school when he was 16: "Buying some followers will actually drive more followers, as it increases the profile of the page.
"Although this may seem dishonest, I see it as a powerful marketing strategy."
Companies with a strong social media presence say their fan base has grown organically and legitimately.
Says a spokesman for budget airline Scoot: "We do not condone the idea of acquiring Facebook fans through deceitful means."
Says Mr John Sinke, 48, assistant vice-president of digital marketing at Resorts World Sentosa: "We would never engage in the buying of followers or "likes" on social media platforms as it is not in the spirit of social media and would be detrimental to our social media efforts."
Scoot's Facebook page has more than 860,000 "likes" and Resorts World Sentosa's has more than 430,000 "likes".
Of the 10 bloggers and 10 businesses with social media accounts that SundayLife! interviewed, all said they do not buy supporters online.
Nonetheless, public relations companies say corporations and individuals might feel tempted to pay for some support on social media.
Mr Edwin Yeo, 46, general manager of public relations consultancy firm SPRG Singapore says bloggers depend on traffic to get funds and sponsorship, and petitions require numbers to demonstrate their following.
He adds: "People participating in online contests determined by popular vote would also want more 'likes' to win the contest."
To the layman, there does not seem to be a "sure-fire" method to prove someone bought friends or supporters.
Says Ms Rika Sharma, Singapore head of Social@Ogilvy, the social media division of Ogilvy & Mather: "The fake follower industry is so sophisticated now that you sometimes need a human eye to pick out the nuances between a fake account and that of someone who is not that active on social media."
Adds Ms Belinda Ang, 33, the director of thinkBIG Communications, a marketing firm whose core business is social media: "You can't really prove it unless the person admits to it."
Nonetheless, the experts suggest some tell-tale signs.
Mr Aloysius Cheang, 39, Asia-Pacific managing director of global computing security association Cloud Security Alliance, recommends messaging a suspected bot.
He says: "If it doesn't respond, it's probably a bot. Another way to tell is if someone else with the same photo or name tries to connect with you."
Says doctor-cum-food blogger Leslie Tay, 45: "Say the Prime Minister - arguably the most influential man in the country - has 300,000 'likes' and you have a million. One has to wonder where the 'likes' are coming from."
Full-time blogger Grace Tan, 27, who writes the business and lifestyle blog Working With Grace, says: "I've never felt tempted to buy followers.
"While the number of followers is important because some advertisers take this as a measurement of a blogger's influence, I don't think it is necessary to buy followers for this reason."
Facebook says it does not and has never permitted the purchase or sale of Facebook "likes".
Says its spokesman: "We investigate and monitor 'like'-vendors and if we find that they are selling fake 'likes' or generating conversations from fake profiles, we will quickly block them from our platform."
(c) 2014 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Provided by Syndigate.info, an Albawaba.com company
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