The industry of bought likes and followers

30.09.2020 von Maximilian Kröger in Science, Research
Followers, likes and clicks are a reflection of influence on social media and therefore a measure of commercial success. But fame can be bought… Researchers from Halle and Sweden are studying the mechanisms of this digital market.
Likes are a reflection of influence on social media. But fame can be bougth.
Likes are a reflection of influence on social media. But fame can be bougth. (Foto: Agentur Kappa GmbH)

Bianca Claßen is one of Germany’s most successful “influencers”, a title bestowed upon social media stars. Almost six million people follow her channel, “Bibis Beauty Palace”, on YouTube. Her channel features over 850 videos on cosmetics, lifestyle and fashion, generating 2.6 billion clicks. It’s a lucrative business for Claßen – back in 2017, Manager Magazin estimated she was earning 110,000 euros a month. The essence of influencer marketing is that people with a strong social media presence can earn money by testing, reviewing and promoting companies’ products. But if you don’t want to invest years of hard work into attracting new fans and keeping your old ones like Claßen, you can always give a fake helping hand in other ways… “There is a global network that specialises in the sale of likes, followers and clicks”, says Professor Patrick Vonderau, a media scientist at the University of Halle.

And it doesn’t cost much to boost your digital success: You can sometimes buy 1,000 Instagram followers for as little as ten euros. A simple Google search is all you need to find a list of German-language providers for more followers, likes and clicks. Their websites often have a sophisticated design similar to that of online marketing agencies. “They have office hours, a hotline, a legal notice – and sometimes even a company profile on LinkedIn”, explains Vonderau. He is working with Professor Johan Lindquist, a social anthropologist from the University of Stockholm, to investigate the industry of bought likes and followers – and their importance – as part of a research project funded by the Swedish Research Council. The scientists are first focusing on online stores to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms of the market. As part of their project, they have been interviewing the owners of so-called “like shops”. “The situation is often depicted in the press as a black economy where the actors do not want to show their faces. We thought that might be a slight exaggeration”, says Vonderau. “We wanted to take a more neutral approach to the topic”.

The shop owners do not produce the likes and followers themselves. They are resellers who either procure their “goods” from social exchange networks or major panels. A social exchange network is where real people work for pennies. “As the platforms have a daily limit for likes and followers, you can’t earn more than 60 euros a month – so it’s not a very lucrative business”, says Vonderau. By contrast, panels also offer bots, which are computer programmes that pretend to be real people and are programmed to act independently. For example, they can be used to follow other user profiles and react to their posts. Similar to social exchange networks, however, bots can be exposed by the algorithms used by Facebook and other social media platforms.

While Lindquist has recruited informants for the research project from Indonesia, Vonderau is focusing on the German market. From a purely statistical perspective, he says, it is a small market in Germany. An average of around 70 “like shops” are online at any given moment, of which only a handful remain active for a considerable period of time. However, it is difficult to determine the actual size of the market – unlike other industries, there is no internal picture of the market. “There is no industry magazine. The actors only hear what is said about them in the press and what people are gossiping about”, says the researcher.
One of the findings from around 30 interviews is that the owners of “like shops” are almost always young men aged 30 and under. “They don’t see their work as professional online fraud”, says the scientist, referring to the situation as a legal grey area. And at least those who have so far been interviewed by the MLU researchers have no interest in influencing political views by selling their services to political parties or politicians. “The actors see their work as a stepping stone to a recognised profession, such as in online marketing”, says the researcher.

The shop owners argue and justify their actions by referring to the concept of “creative destruction”. This term basically means that industries will perish and be replaced if they are not innovative. Creative destruction was even the guiding principle that led Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, explains Vonderau. The innovative part was the promise that every user could become famous. But that didn’t work. However, there is still a demand for digital success. “Like shops merely create the supply for the demand”, says Vonderau. “In my opinion, that shows that Facebook and the other social media platforms have become the heavy and sluggish industries they once wanted to break away from”.

Vonderau believes an important point has been forgotten in the media coverage to date: “People who sell likes are part of an economy that also includes major corporations. Google’s organic rankings determine which companies I see online. And the market couldn’t function without payment services like PayPal either”. Even though frequent security updates make life harder for “like shops” on social media platforms, Vonderau argues he does not get the impression that Instagram and other sites want to stop it completely. Followers, likes and clicks are ultimately what drive traffic (interaction with a social network). The media scientist believes we should also be discussing that complex entanglement of interests.

Patrick Vonderau
Patrick Vonderau (Foto: Maike Glöckner)

Während Lindquist in Indonesien Informanten für das Forschungsprojekt gewonnen hat, beschäftigt sich Vonderau mit dem deutschen Markt. Rein statistisch gesehen, sagt er, handelt es sich in Deutschland um einen kleinen Markt. Etwa 70 Like-Shops sind im Durchschnitt online, davon sei nur eine Handvoll über einen längeren Zeitraum aktiv. Die Marktgröße sei jedoch schwierig zu erfassen. Denn im Gegensatz zu anderen Industriezweigen gibt es kein internes Bild des Marktes. „Es gibt kein Branchenmagazin. Die Akteure erfahren nur das, was in der Presse über sie berichtet wird und was man über Klatsch und Tratsch mitbekommt“, so der Forscher.

Eines der Ergebnisse von etwa 30 Interviews: Die Betreiber von Like-Shops sind fast ausnahmslos junge Männer, höchstens 30 Jahre alt. „Sie betrachten ihre Tätigkeit nicht als professionellen Internetbetrug“, sagt der Wissenschaftler, der selbst eher von einem rechtlichen Graubereich spricht. Und: Zumindest diejenigen, mit denen der MLU-Forscher bisher gesprochen hat, haben kein Interesse, an Parteien und Politiker zu verkaufen und damit die politische Meinung zu beeinflussen. „In ihrer Wahrnehmung befinden sich die Akteure vielmehr auf dem Durchflug zu einem anerkannten Beruf, beispielsweise im Online Marketing“, erklärt der Forscher.

Die Shop-Betreiber argumentieren und rechtfertigen ihr Handeln nach der Logik der „kreativen Zerstörung“. Sinngemäß besagt dieser Begriff, dass Industrien untergehen und verdrängt werden, wenn sie nicht innovativ sind. Die „kreative Zerstörung“ war auch das Credo von Facebook-Gründer Mark Zuckerberg, sagt Vonderau. Die Innovation war das Versprechen, dass jede Nutzerin und jeder Nutzer berühmt werden könne. Das funktionierte jedoch nicht. Der Bedarf nach digitalem Erfolg besteht aber nach wie vor. „Like-Shops schaffen lediglich das Angebot für die Nachfrage“, so Vonderau. „Das zeigt für mich, dass Facebook und Co. selbst zu diesen schweren, behäbigen Industrien geworden sind, die sie einst aufbrechen wollten.“

Im Übrigen verfehle die bisherige Berichterstattung in den Medien einen wichtigen Punkt, so Vonderau: „Personen, die Likes verkaufen, sind Teil einer Ökonomie, zu denen auch die Großkonzerne gehören. Welche Firmen ich im Internet sehe, entscheiden die organischen Rankings von Google. Und ohne Bezahldienste wie Paypal könnte der Markt auch nicht funktionieren.“ Es gibt zwar immer wieder Sicherheitsupdates der Social-Media-Plattformen, die das Geschäft der Like-Shops erschweren. Aber Vonderau sagt, er habe nicht den Eindruck, dass Instagram und Co. es gänzlich unterbinden wollen. Schließlich erzeugen Follower, Likes und Klicks Traffic, also gewollte Besucherbewegungen und Interaktion mit dem sozialen Netzwerk. Diese unlösbare Art von Verstrickungen sollte auch diskutiert werden, findet der Medienwissenschaftler.

Professor Patrick Vonderau
Institut für Musik, Medien- und Sprechwissenschaften
Telephone: +49 345 55-23570
Mail: patrick.vonderau@medienkomm.uni-halle.de

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