Nowadays business owners spend thousands to promote their pages on Facebook, keen to keep direct contact with their market segment and show how popular their business or cause is.

It has also become a common occurrence for politicians to create Facebook pages to gauge the level of interest among their followers. Anyone who followed the last general election in Malta will be familiar with the party leaders’ Facebook pages and how some compared the number of likes and friends to try and predict the outcome of the election.

We should expect this trend to continue to rise in the coming years as more money is shifted from advertising budgets that target traditional media such as television, print and radio to online media mostly dominated by Facebook and Google adverts.

A couple of years ago, some computer-savvy teenagers decided to start cheating this system and got busy trying to find loopholes in Facebook’s like system – in fact, they managed to create pages with thousands of fake likes. Facebook immediately took action and created algorithms to identify fake likes and delete them immediately.

It appeared that for a couple of years the fake like situation was completely under control. The situation, however, took a turn for the worse in recent months, with new websites openly promoting a more intricate, untraceable system of creating fake likes.

Websites such as are selling 1,000 fake likes for just €36. Other websites such as also cater for likes on various social media platforms such as Pinterest and You Tube.

To date, Facebook has been unable to shut down such sites using conventional legal battles – this is mostly due to the fact that these sites operate from countries which have no legislation against such activity.

Facebook’s conventional algorithms are unable to identify such activity because real humans are actually clicking that popular like button

The fake like business is not based on any advanced technology – rather, companies offering these dubious services are actually paying people, mostly teenagers, to like pages. Facebook’s conventional algorithms are unable to identify such activity because real humans are actually clicking that popular like button, unlike the earlier systems which created bots to do their dirty business.

A recent Bloomberg investigative documentary that went undercover on this issue revealed most fake likes can be traced back to countries such as China, which is producing highly trained computer wizards who have little or no prospects of ever finding a good-paying job in their line of study. No wonder many choose the dark side of internet marketing to generate a steady stream of income.

Also, when these people are identified, they are not prosecuted – rather, they receive the adulation of their peers. A prominent case is that of a 25-year-old who goes by the name of Zhang Changhe – not only did Changhe manage to become financially independent by selling fake likes online but when he was identified last February, he was offered a job at the People’s Liberation Army. In fact, many suspect that this organisation was actually behind the January 2010 hacking of thousands of Gmail accounts.

But what does this mean to the average Facebook user? Social media is based on trust, so the more likes a business has, the more likely we are to give it our custom.

Let’s say, for instance, that a particular restaurant page has 10,000 likes – you immediately think that, given such endorsement, it must be a good restaurant. Little would we suspect that some of the likes are fake.

If Facebook remains unable to tackle this abuse, it may end up putting in jeopardy its business model. After all, why would a business invest hundreds of euros to create a legitimate campaign when it can buy a thousand likes for a fraction of the price?

Is this the beginning of the end for Facebook? We cannot know for sure, but Facebook is already taking drastic steps to eliminate this underground economy. We do not know the extent of the action Facebook is taking, but rest assured that it’s taking this abuse very seriously. Proof of this comes from a journalist who recently toured the social media’s headquarters and noticed that many rooms had two clocks on their walls, one showing the local time and the other the time in Beijing. I take this as a sign that Facebook is keeping an eye on the situation.

Ian Vella is a search engine optimisation specialist and creator of

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