Like Workers, Reputation Forgers

Friday, June 24, 2016: 4:15 PM-5:45 PM
210 South Hall (South Hall)
Kevin Mellet, Orange Labs, Issy-Les-Moulineaux, France
Thomas Beauvisage, Orange Labs, Issy-Les-Moulineaux, France
In July 2012, a series of articles in the mainstream media reveal to the public cheating practices on social media: the Internet users learn that you can buy fans, followers, and that famous public figures do so. The blogger Zach Green accuses the Republican candidate for the US presidential election, Mitt Romney, of having bought Twitter followers in the middle of the election campaign. In the following months, public denunciations multiply in the media; they target individuals but also brands. Meanwhile, several surveys reveal the existence of an industry of cheating in social networks. Websites easily accessible from queries on search engines sell likes, followers or YouTube views. It is thus possible to build up artificially, quickly and inexpensively, a dummy reputation capital. If rigging techniques remain largely obscure, it is a truly global market, with its intermediaries, sales channels, leading products, quality standards, which is uncovered and whose economic weight is estimated at several hundred million dollars.

This business of cheating in social networks is the hidden face of an online reputation economy that is growing rapidly. This economy is positioned at the convergence of two dynamic (Beuscart et al. 2015). First, the expansion of quantification and performance measurements contributes to the establishment of an audit society, whose main characteristic is to give importance to performance indicators, which in turn, modify and guide the behavior of actors (Power, 1997; Espeland and Sauder 2007). Secondly, web technologies raise the participation and expression of Internet users, in massive amounts and very diverse formats: amateur productions, consumer ratings and reviews, comments, likes, followers, etc. Those many contributions are part of a social activity of setting visibility, appreciation and assessment of individuals and businesses. Thus recorded, measured and quantified, reputation acquires stability and strength on the web. While the value associated with the reputation capital grows, an online reputation economy develops. It is composed of actors seeking to identify, manage, and domesticate these plural forms of online participation (Boullier and Lohard, 2012; Mellet, 2012; Jammet, 2015; Kotras, 2015).

Market players and intermediaries who sell fake like, followers or views, appear in this view as true reputation forgers. Like Bessy and Chateauraynaud’s forgers (2015 [1995]), those vendors use the propensity of people to work in a perception economy, "and exploit the differential in perception between those who stick to the signs and markers commonly shared and those who have access to the manufacture of these benchmarks and these signs to deceive the first” (p.89). As demonstrated by research on underground markets, like and followers dealers must meet a system of determined constraints: make a product that deceives the vigilance of some while meeting the expectations of customers who mostly are aware that it is counterfeit, mask manufacturing processes and avoid the legal constraints while establishing distribution channels for the flow of goods (Bessy and Chateauraynaud, 2015; Beckert and Wehinger, 2013; Wehinger, 2013).

But looking more closely, the market for fake likes or followers resembles neither quite an illegal market nor totally a counterfeit market. Some elements are problematic. First, academic literature on illegal and informal markets puts forward their invisibility, their underground character, and their poor equipment in terms of evaluation and judgment devices (standards, verification devices and quality assessment tools). Conversely, the market for fake like appears at first sight to be very equipped: it has both a market infrastructure comparable to that of ordinary online commerce and standard products with stabilized properties. Is that enough to remove information asymmetries in the economy of counterfeit reputations?

Secondly, the notion of forgery when talking about attachments on social networks should be questioned. Social networks, foremost among which Facebook, have reified by the terms 'fan' and ‘like’ an ideal-type of relationship between one brand and its customers that proves to be far removed from the ordinary work of advertising and customer relationship. Companies and users are, if not calculating agents, at least strategists and opportunists: what is the basis of the notion of social relationship forgery when this relationship is plowed by the ordinary work of social media marketing and advertising? From a market perspective, what establishes the separation between acceptable and fake fans/followers?

Thirdly, the place of that activity in the market architectures developed around social media is blurred. If it is first assumed that a company or a personality will be the first interested in cheating on her reputation, insertion of cheating in very different markets complicates the identification of real victims and real beneficiaries of fraudulent manipulation. How does this reprobated practice of selling fake likes/followers/views develop, is regulated and stabilize into a market?

This article's objective is to clarify those questions, i.e. to understand this market’s place within social media marketing and reputation management, the particular nature of its products and its internal architecture: sellers, manufacturers, methods. For this we rely on a diverse empirical material allowing us to document the emergence of the market, its operation and stabilization in marketized forms and standardized products. For this, we have amassed a corpus of articles in trade and general public press devoted to the subject, supplemented by an analysis of computer science research devoted to the detection of fraudulent practices on social networks. We also selected a sample of a hundred websites marketing fake products on major social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube): for each provider, we collected detailed information on products: type, quantities, qualities and prices.. Finally, we rely on a corpus of interviews: we carried semi-structured interviews with three site managers primarily selling packages of Facebook likes, followers on Instagram and views on Youtube, as well as an interview with the head of a social media marketing agency located on the "legitimate" side of the market. The constitution of the sample of websites and the interviews were conducted between April and June 2013. Secondarily, we made interviews with social media marketing agencies’ managers, during a previous investigation (Mellet, 2012) to document the honest and legitimate side of market for visibility and reputation management in social networks.