There may be a new job posting in your area soon, for a "social media mercenary."
These are people who are hired to create fake social media profiles to look like real people and then tout certain products--interspersing their promotions with posts that look legitimate.
Boston Globe reporter Gareth Cook told Here & Now's Robin Young that the activity is happening largely in China, particularly with RenRen, the Chinese version of Facebook.
"What these nefarious people discovered is they can hire someone and pay them pennies to set up a real account that looks like a real person on RenRen or Facebook, and then they can use that account to whatever purpose they want," he said.
Ben Zhao, an associate professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara has been looking into the phenomenon and labels it "crowdturfing," as the Boston Globe reports:
A combination of “astroturfing’’ and “crowdsourcing.’’ Astroturfing is an older term which refers to fake grassroots efforts, like secretly paying people to send notes to their senator in favor of a bill. Crowdsourcing is outsourcing to a crowd - a form of mass collaboration in which someone puts out a public request for help with a large number of well-defined tasks.
Zhao found that in China, there were about 10,000 crowdturfing campaigns, up from just 100 or so in 2007.
Zhao came across the crowdturfing phenomenon when employees at China's RenRen social media site sent him information on banned accounts.
"They had sent him all these accounts that they had banned.. because they were spreading spam. And he started to realize that they looked very realistic, they didn't look like they were just computer generated, and that made him think that something strange and new was happening," Gareth Cook said.
Has Crowdturfing come to the US?
Cook says that Zhao reports one large social media site in the U.S. has already some very good fake accounts being posted and misused, and they're trying to figure out tactics to defeat this.
- Boston Globe: A Dark Force, Unleashed Online
- Gareth Cook, reporter for the Boston Globe
This segment aired on February 20, 2012.