Is Channel 4’s portrayal of social media fraud a fair assessment?

Despatches Sun, Mirror

Monday, 8pm, Dispatches – Celebs, Brands and Fake Fans. Chris Atkin’s goes undercover to discover what’s real and what’s fake in the new online social media world.

No one would argue that there is not a lot of faking up of social media numbers going on. It’s simply too easy, too cheap and often too easy to get away with. And as one client I know (who I interviewed when I was recently doing research into social media fraud) said, “If the values I’m measured by are unreal, does it matter if the numbers are too?”

If marketing directors, or social media/PR agencies, are being forced to make false targets, because some people think likes, fans and followers are of a higher value than they really are, you’ll get corruption. It’s human nature. Like it or unlike it.

But Chris Atkin’s undercover expose (for Matchlight Productions) of how brands, agencies and celebrities fake up the numbers was probably unsurprising to most of us. We all know about the Asian call centers that turned their talents to creating fake Facebook and Twitter identities when the outsourcing collapsed. Though he seemed to miss the massive Russian side of the business.

So who is to blame? The marketing directors? The agencies? Or those running click farms?

If we think about what is called ‘vanity marketing’, then you can blame the ego of the brand. This is essentially what led to the Justine Bieber scandal, one record company trying to look more successful than another.

But probably the true criminal is the bureaucrats and accountants, because they are the ones that have turned marketing into a pure numbers game (where once values existed), and just as they did, social media came along with oh so many ways to deliver numbers.


Giving it a negative ethical spin.

Chris Atkin’s target, click farms in Dhaka, Bangladesh, made good TV but I think if he’d tried doing that in Russia he’d got shot. Going to a poor city in Bangladesh did give the programme a new ethical angle, comparing the exploitation of poorly paid workers in click farms, working long hours just to massage the vanity of celebrities and brands in the West, to that of sweat shops.

In a classic TV journalism way he used secret cameras, got people talking openly and exposed the Facebook fraudsters on camera, then approached the brands that had been victims of faking up. And true to form, they all deny any involvement, claiming they had strong ethical principles and blamed “consultants”. Yeah, right!

I feel a little sorry for SM4B and Dynasty Media, who both got slaughtered, though probably deservedly. Despite what we may think, the public have no idea that these two companies are unrepresentative of our industry and therefore tar us all with their dirty brush. But watching an ad executive brag about pushing up the numbers, even if it was just for the Peak District, makes for good TV.

Atkin’s really only managed to get one big brand in the spotlight, Coca-Cola, claiming that one click farm had been used to add millions to their YouTube views. After my own investigations a few months ago I could have given him a much longer list of big brands, when you know what to look for they are easy to spot.

What price for a celebrity Tweet?

Finally he went into the shallow end, and attacked actresses from Coronation Street for accepting ‘gifts for Tweets’. This has resulted in ITV threatening to take legal action if Channel 4 broadcast this programme. They did, so let’s see if the ITV lawyers actually have a case.

Atkins invented a brand, “Puttana Aziendale” which he gave to a number of celebs in exchange for gushing Tweets – the name actually means “corporate whore” in Italian.

Under ASA regulations celbrities should add #ad to their Tweets to let their shallow fans know it’s not real, that they don’t really love this amazing Puttana Aziendale body spray or a Cleve watch (another fake brand), it was a gift.

It’s is ironic that Atkin’s used fake brands and fake websites to reveal the world of fake social media, so does the end justify the means of is it just another case of journalistic hypocrisy?

The serious side of faking.

If you paint a copy of a classic painting and sell it as copy, that’s ok, but if you sell it as real you go to prison. It’s a fake and fraud.

One fact that was mentioned on the programme, and one that has serious consequences, was the legal angle – faking number is essential criminal as well as misleading consumers. An agency that fakes numbers without their client knowing is defrauding the client because they are being paid in good faith. It only takes one brand’s legal department to take action and we may one day see someone go to prison.

We all know that there is a massive problem with faked up numbers on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the rest, but only a real fool would put any real value on those numbers. A recent survey we did reveled that the vast majority of marketers don’t believe the numbers but admitted they would be tempted to fake numbers up if under pressure.

At the end of the day you need to evaluating how your social media strategy is selling product – what’s the benefit to the bottom line? Because that’s what marketing is really about. As Bill Bernbach once said, “We are all just glorified salesmen.” Though sometimes I fear we are too busy selling the dream rather than the reality.



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Celebrities ‘tweet for cash scandal’ sees stars touted for up to £10,000 to plug products (Daily Mirror)