Hordes of Fake Users Scamming Social Media, eCommerce Sites

NEWS ANALYSIS: Fake followers are Silicon Valley's dirty little secret. But just wait until the fake followers are created by artificial intelligence.

Fake Followers 2

Oh, no. Pied Piper bought fake users.

The most recent episode of the HBO TV series, "Silicon Valley," (spoiler alert) ends with the revelation that one member of the team saved the fictional startup by buying the services of a fake-user company in India.

It's a fascinating scene. The show's closing shot shows a room filled with cigarette-smoking Indian employees paid to use Pied Piper's app under fake accounts, just to boost the company's "Active Daily User" numbers.

In the real Silicon Valley, in fact, and across the IT industry, in general, the fake user problem is already troublesome, and it's about to get much worse.

Why do tech companies and other startups create fake users? As with Pied Piper, one reason is to convince real users that a Web-based service is popular and, therefore, more appealing.

Inside the World of Fake User Accounts

The online hook-up site Ashley Madison is reportedly overrun by fake accounts. Most men are real users, but most of the accounts claiming to represent women apparently are fake.

The dating app Tinder also has fake user accounts set up to lure real users off the app and onto another site or app where they can be scammed with cons, identity thieves or malware, according to researchers at Symantec and Panda Security. Many of these fake accounts are used by spambots, which reportedly imitate the speech patterns of flirtatious women, and sometimes men.

Another reason to create fake accounts is to post phony online reviews. Amazon recently filed lawsuits against three sellers for using sock puppet accounts to post fake reviews. (They posed as consumers but were in fact "reviewing" their own products. And these sellers were allegedly prolific—some 30 to 45 percent of the companies' reviews were fake. The lawsuits are nothing new, according to Amazon, which claims to have sued more than 1,000 fake-review posters.

As with the fictional Pied Piper, the easiest way to blanket any site, service or app with fake users is by simply hiring a company that provides fake-user services, which typically cost a few pennies per "user." A photo went viral last year that supposedly shows a woman in front of a bank of dozens of smartphones at a "Chinese App Store ranking manipulation farm."

Unscrupulous startups are just one minor contributor to the global phenomenon of fake users. The most prolific creators of fake social accounts are actually government propagandists.

A recent Harvard study of China's "50-cent army" found that fake accounts created by people paid by the Chinese government number in the hundreds of thousands, and this "army" posts nearly 450 million comments and posts per year. (It's called the "50-cent army" because freelancers used to be paid 50 cents per post to advocate for the Chinese government.

Within China, social media users call them "Internet Apes" because they "ape" the government line. Now, according to the report, most posters are regular employees of the Chinese government who don't get paid extra for the posts. The researchers also found that these fake accounts and paid-for comments are not centrally planned, but executed by the Communist Party itself and by various branches of the Chinese government.

Russia has reportedly also adopted the practice. So has the Central Intelligence Agency.

Of course, propaganda has existed since the beginning of human history and swaying public opinion by astro-turfing the social sites is one of the easiest, most cost-effective and persuasive methods ever devised.

Every recent American presidential election is attended by the creation of massive numbers of fake social media accounts to astro-turf public opinion in favor of one candidate or another.

According to one report, about 8 percent of presidential candidate Donald Trump and 7 percent of Hillary Clinton's Twitter followers are fake accounts. That estimate is conservative—some reports say the majority of the candidates' social media followers are fake.

Reports claim that a Hillary Clinton political action committee (PAC) has spent a million dollars this year to counter anti-Clinton posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Reddit. The initiative is called Barrier Breakers. Some participating accounts were real, but many were created for purpose.

Both the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigns have complained about the project, and launched their own counter-Clinton programs, some using the hashtag #CorrectThis on Twitter and elsewhere to communicate that opposition.

A thread on the anonymous image board Website 4chan involved Donald Trump fans planning to create large numbers of fake accounts on Twitter pretending to be supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in order to troll them into attacking each other.