Facebook is rotting from the inside out

Put simply, there’s too much content on Facebook. Unmanageable content creation and very little quality control are perfect ingredients for spammers and Zombie Ad Networks.

Until recently there were few cheap spam systems which worked and, crucially, none were monetizable*. However, since the arrival of Facebook page viral spam on an industrial scale, things have changed.

On the surface these Facebook pages are plain old Facebook pages as we’ve come to know them, but with a more calculated and crafty back story.

The content is the same funny, entertaining, time-killer material that used to arrive by email, clog up your inbox and slow down corporate networks in the early ‘00s, but with a spin.

The spin could be a goal scored in the big match moments earlier or a speech at the Oscars, for instance. These memes, photos and funny videos are akin to a visual trending list. People love them. But they are spam and observers cite a Facebook fraud problem.

In fact, users are letting their guard down just as people did with email. We all remember Nigerian 419 spam from stricken nobility in Lagos and being aghast at how people actually fell for them.  Then, on social networks, the 419 Scam morphed into clickjacking, where a spoof video would spread on Facebook purporting to show some sexual or violent act, with titles like ‘Dad Walks In on Girl Stripping on W3bC4m’” and such.

But clickjacking was easily eradicated by blocking specific URLs that hosted surveys and cyberlocked content. Another reason clickjacking failed is because people didn’t like being caught out with an embarrassing post on their Wall.

These days, Facebook page viral spam is a different kind of plague. The zombie pages are willingly shared by unsuspecting users.

In the example below, the page ‘You’re Doing It Wrong’ gained 37,200 likes in 6 hours. The likes come from any one of 40,000 (mostly fake) FB profiles. When compared to the 150,000 accounts liking Manly Sh*t, an Aussie-run FB page that was launched on March 4, you start to get an idea of just how fast these pages can grow.

Pages are often named along similar lines to the meme of the day or whatever is trending on Twitter or doing well on Reddit. In keeping with Reddit many viral spam Facebook Pages cover one line, or meme with a shelf life that of a post on Reddit.

Take “After-sex selfies”, a page inspired by a meme. What started with a UK Cancer Charity asking campaign that challenged women to post ‘no makeup selfies” ended with the low brow, spam, and dubious charity collection entitled “C*ck in a sock”. You can use your imagination, as they did when they asked unsuspecting Facebook users to donate money to their campaign. Where those donations went is anyone’s guess. The point is this: by virtue of the fact that Facebook is within a walled garden it would seem people are more likely to trust (and be duped). It is after all the most spammed site on the internet.

The content is regurgitated photos, memes lifted from around the web (hence DMCA notices on websites connected to the pages). Not much is new or original, though the process is actually known in the mainstream as ‘content curation’.

Since Facebook controls all monetizable real estate within its walled garden (even sponsored images that show in the news feed can’t include more than 20% text) and given FB, as yet, doesn’t share any revenue with content creators, it must click-bait the user with cute cats, crazy videos and bloopers to entice users to visit a website outside the social network, where adverts are placed and the chance to monetize exists.

Spammers make their money from clicks on adverts placed on the sites they drive traffic to. Media companies and ad networks control tens to hundreds of FB pages and drive traffic off Facebook to sell on to advertisers on a cost-per-thousand (CPM) ** basis or via traffic exchanges.

Privacy is also an issue, with Facebook page viral spam seen as users are directed outside the walled garden. And just like the unsolicited email of the early ‘00s that was filled with 1×1 advertising pixels or other hazardous payloads, the ultimate aim is to deliver adverts to users, either on first visit to a site or via retargeting. The question for advertisers is whether the clicks on their adverts are valuable, or not.

The people behind the pages are your everyday Joes and canny spammers through to Ad Networks looking to drive traffic outside Facebook. One such company is Adexlink Inc: a leading Mobile Apps Platform, Advanced Mediation Tool and Cross Promotion Club. Adexlink is responsible for Manly Sh*t, People Having a Bad Day (277,000 views in five days), Autocorrect Texts  and many more which in turn drive traffic to sites like LadBible, Unboredable, EBC  , Amazing Stream and RealSparrow. The simplicity of the websites belies the level of traffic they receive.

S4S (Share for Share) is a kind of ’Webring’ (remember those?) for FB page admins to distribute a page. ‘You share mine, I’ll share yours’ is the reciprocal cross-pollination of pages.

The method is also used to great effect by large, viral page-spammers. For instance, ‘If it fits, I sits’ page was shared on ‘You’re Doing It Wrong’ and many more pages within a page pyramid.

Using cross pollination, ‘If it fits, I sits’ garnered  more than 26,000 fans in just 16 hours.  The admin will post a few engaging updates, then make a post which includes a link to a website. Crucially by this point a fan of the page is more likely to have lowered their guard and will perhaps not notice that this latest post is indeed to a website, adverts included.

It’s a clever pyramid: 1) Create a webpage and post some viral content to it (the content is usually copied from elsewhere); 2) Buy a Facebook page for around $1000 for a 500,000 fan base and pay other page admins of large pages to share your page or do it yourself, and get the ball rolling via like exchanges and markets; 3) Launch catchily named pages, post a few updates; 4) Use S4S and cross pollination to create the doped viral effect. All you need is a couple of popular pages and the viral effect will drive everything: likes, fans, traffic and revenue.

It’s not uncommon for pages to have complex rules about which pages they will share: ‘10k plus, no sports, only memes’ and so on.

From the creator’s point of view, Facebook could launch a revenue share scheme similar to Google AdSense, where creators are paid a percentage of the ad revenue on a CPM basis. This might halt the need for creators to push users off FB.

Advertisers generally don’t want to purchase adverts next to skateboarding dogs or blooper videos, and Facebook recognises that in order to generate revenue they need to promote more meaningful content. Hence the recent announcement that some newsfeed updates will be suppressed, meaning paid inclusion is the only guaranteed method for pages to show up.

On the contrary, viral spam pages have gammed the system: FB Edge or graph algorithm promote posts that have gained most traction (likes, shares, comments over time).  The unrivalled potency of viral content is hard to deny and if Facebook doesn’t like this, just like Google dealt with link spam, there’s an Algorithm for it.

So next time, before you click ‘Like’ on a Facebook page, ask yourself if the page is ‘real’ and consider for a minute that you might just have been conned…

Rhoda Crocket
Rhoda Crocket is Netopia’s undercover hacking and spamming expert. The name is fake (like with any spammer), but Netopia knows her real identity.