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Looking to get more popular on Facebook? Alex Melen will sell you 1,000 "likes" for about $75.
Melen runs an Internet marketing company. About six months ago, companies he worked with started coming to him more and more with a simple problem: They had created pages on Facebook, but nobody had clicked the "like" button.
"You would go there, and there would be two likes," Melen says. "And one of them would be the owner. And people right away lost interest in the brand."
For the right price, Melen can fix that.
Facebook knows an incredible amount about hundreds of millions of people — what they like, what they want, who their friends are, where they live. This is the key reason why investors think the company is so valuable. But that value only holds up if the data is real — if all those people actually like what they say they like.
When Melen sells likes to a company, he goes through an intermediary, who in turn could be working with people anywhere in the world. The people on the other end are just doing it for money. They get paid a very small amount — 10 cents, say — each time they like a company.
"Right now on the black market, you can actually buy and sell bundles of Facebook account credentials," says Ben Zhao, a computer science professor at UC Santa Barbara. "Tens of dollars or hundreds of dollars for hundreds or thousands of Facebook accounts."
In some cases, there are no people involved at all. Those fake accounts are controlled by robots and create fake data. (Melen says all his likers are real people.)
The people who pay Melen for likes range from an LED light bulb company to a publicity company for a reality show.
The show had 95,000 Facebook fans already, but it wanted about 25,000 more. These likes really matter to television networks, which sell advertising based in part on the number of likes they have.
Facebook knows this sort of thing is going on. And the company has created an elaborate system to root out bad data. It has social bot hunters whose job is to track down fake Facebook profiles and kick them off the network. But it's still happening.
Another company that sells likes showed us a Nashville country singer who was a client. She had a lot of likes — mostly from Egypt.