Facebook Bots Are Cause for Concern For Artists and Fans

Facebook isn't the only site for which musicians can buy fake love, but it sure is catching a lot of heat lately."

Even as it exerts increasing influence over our public and private lives, this hasn't been the best year for Facebook, with its faltering IPO filing, controversial privacy policy shifts, widely-criticized shift to the "Timeline" layout, and its recent censoring of a nude Gerhard Richter painting. Then came this week's apparent revelation that Facebook's all-important click-through ads -- the ones that generate revenue for the company and its new stockholders -- were possibly being driven by web bots for the most part.

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The scandal broke on Monday, when a music-oriented digital storefront company called Limited Run publicized possible issues with the click-through rate on their Facebook ads, even claiming to have been shaken down by Facebook for cash. And this came on the heels of another music-related scandal in May, involving many of the top EDM superstars, including David Guetta, Avicii, and Skrillex, whom some accused of manipulating the Like counts on their Facebook artist pages, also using bots.

What's going on here?

Let's start with Limited Run, formerly known as Limited Pressing. The company, which focused on creating webstores that recording artists control, noticed something strange as it prepared to launch a new version of its service and decided to test its Facebook advertising account. After being frustrated that no other company would help analyze the performance of these Facebook ads, it wrote its own software to do so.

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What they found was enough to drive them from the social network. Limited Run had this to say in its farewell message to Facebook:

"Here's what we found: "on about 80% of the clicks Facebook was charging us for, JavaScript wasn't on. And if the person clicking the ad doesn't have JavaScript, it's very difficult for an analytics service to verify the click. What's important here is that in all of our years of experience, only about 1-2% of people coming to us have JavaScript disabled, not 80% like these clicks coming from Facebook. So we did what any good developers would do. We built a page logger. Any time a page was loaded, we'd keep track of it. You know what we found? The 80% of clicks we were paying for were from bots. That's correct. Bots were loading pages and driving up our advertising costs. So we tried contacting Facebook about this. Unfortunately, they wouldn't reply."

The company's account only gets worse from there. When it tried to change its Facebook name from Limited Pressing to Limited Run, the company claims, Facebook said it would not allow the name change unless Limited Run agreed to pay $2,000 per month in advertising. Stunned, Limited Run cursed them out and decided to move its business to Twitter, "where we don't get shaken down."

To be fair, Facebook is investigating the claim, and says, "there seems to be some sort of miscommunication. We do not charge Pages to have their names changed."

However, this is not the only alleged weirdness currently involving Facebook, music, and bots. Even when apparently real (we can't be too sure) people click on artists' Like buttons, controversy can ensue.

Earlier this summer, several EDM (electronic dance music) stars were accused of buying fans on Facebook using one or more of those dodgy services that promise "5K Twitter followers in an hour!" and the like. This image of unknown origin, linked from Mixmag's investigation into the matter, indicates that for some weird reason, "fans" of Avicii, Skrillex, David Guetta, Steve Aoki, Deadmau5 and Excision (all of which appear to use the same online promoter) were disproportionately likely to come from Mexico City.

Excision immediately took exception in a Facebook post, claiming he did not buy any Likes. Instead, he claimed, the ads he and the other artists had bought were run on an auction system -- and that Mexico City must have suited that particular price point. Not only that, but some of these artists had recently performed there, and the image posted by Mix Mag only referred to new fans, not overall fans. Finally, he pointed out, "why would you buy fake profiles of people from Mexico when you can buy fake American fans with triple the value for the same price?" (This might sound weird, but advertisers regularly price advertisees from different countries differently.)

However, what is clear is that people are all too ready to believe that Facebook Likes are being faked -- and that a large underground market in fact does exist for selling Facebook Likes and Twitter followers. A simple web search for "buy Facebook Likes" turns up a whole slew of them, such as buyilikes.com, bulkfans.com, 1millionfans.com, and fansgalore.net.

Perhaps the most outrageous of these is 1millionfans.com (pictured above right), whose website lists prices starting with 500 "Likes" for $27, all the way up to one million "Likes" for $39,950. Meanwhile, marketing agencies and advice columns, like the one on quickonlinetips.com tell would-be Like manipulators the "best" ways to engage in these deceptive practices.

Recording artists are not alone in their use or alleged use of these techniques, of course. In May, Gizmodo suggested that Michigan Congressional District candidate Steve Petska may have bought Likes after losing ground to his opponent, the younger, more tech-savvy Trevor Thomas. At issue: Petska's Likes jumped from 1,000 to 7,500 over the course of a few weeks, mostly due to clicks appearing to come from Tel Aviv, Israel, in the 13-17 year old demographic. In April, most of his newfound Likes came from teenagers in the Philippines, who are about as likely to care about a state congress race as the Israeli kids were, although figuring out exactly what happened there is nearly impossible for those of us outside of Facebook.

If attention really is the new currency, some degree of counterfeiting is to be expected. But if Facebook (and Twitter for that matter) can't figure out a way to tell the bots from the fans, the whole ecosystem will suffer, threatening the new artist/fan connections promised by today's social networks. Just ask Excision, who has taken to caricaturing critics as sheep on the way to Failsville, which is no way to treat a would-be fan.