If you’ve ever wondered how anyone could benefit from posting those spammy links that end up clogging up your Facebook news feed, prepare to be shocked. It turns out that people posting links to Facebook fan pages to third-party scam sites may be bringing in as much as US$200-million a year.
That’s according to calculations by a group of Italian researchers who, according to The Guardian, investigated hundreds of thousands of posts on the world’s largest social network.
Andrea Stroppa and Carlo De Micheli, the leaders of the study, say that they analysed Facebook for phrases such as “Hey click here for a free iPhone” followed by a link to an external site. They also apparently managed to find sites where people offer to set up fake fan pages to post spammy links in.
As The Guardian notes, these posts breach Facebook’s terms and conditions, which make it clear that “third-party advertisements on [fan] Pages are prohibited without our prior permission.”
These links are a massive problem for Facebook, especially given that they don’t contribute to its overall revenue, instead they leverage on the social network’s popularity to cast as wide a net as possible for their own gain.
It’s also not easy for Facebook to catch the spammers, given that they tend to use legitimate link shortening services such as TinyURL and Bitly. It’s these link shortening services however which made it possible for the researchers to track how many clicks the links were getting.
Their research suggests that what’s going on is incredibly lucrative:
“The spam posters get paid an average of US$13 per post, for pages that have around 30 000 fans, up to an average of US$58 to post on pages with more than 100 000 fans,” De Micheli told the Guardian. “If we consider these two as extremes, the pages we analysed generate a revenue of 18 000 posts per day, times the revenue per post — ranging from US$13 to US$58 — 365 days a year.”
When the number of fans on the pages are taken into account, it emerges that the spammers are raking in around US$200-million a year.
Interestingly, they seem to think they’re doing Facebook a favour by posting the content they do:
“Facebook doesn’t ban us, simply because we generate the content on Facebook itself. Everyday I materialize funny, and interesting content full of phrases and so forth that is shared and liked by thousands of users. Without the fan pages Facebook would be an empty place. Tell me how many links do you see shared by your friends on your timeline everyday? You see – the answer is simple.”
Stroppa and De Micheli reckon it’s purely about financial self-interest though: “For people involved in this business the sole reason to continue is for the profit. We even found somebody who was selling a page dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Boston terrorist attack for US$1 000.”
A business that lucrative will, of course, become increasingly organised. The researchers, for instance, uncovered a network of over 30 000 pages dedicated to Facebook spam.
“Third parties pay spammers to post their links on Facebook pages, to reach the largest amount of users possible,” said De Micheli. For the financial model to work, the third parties must be accruing benefits even greater than they are paying the spammers – though it is impossible to know what their rate of return might be.
“We notice that it is rather common for the landing page [from a link] to be a product on an e-commerce site made to monetise quickly rather than to generate traffic on a home page,” De Micheli said. “Links to YouTube can be used to generate views, and so money – view generation on YouTube is a fast-growing market.” YouTube offers revenue-sharing arrangements with a number of users.
When it comes to dealing with the issue, Facebook says it tries to take action against spammers but is often completely overwhelmed.
A Facebook spokesperson told The Guardian: “Protecting the people who use Facebook is a top priority for us, and we have developed a number of automated systems to identify potentially harmful links and stop them from spreading. Those systems quickly spotted these links, and we are working to clear them from the site now.
“In the meantime, we have been blocking people from clicking through the links and have reported the bad browser extensions to the appropriate parties. We believe only a small percentage of our users were affected by this issue, and we are currently working with them to ensure that they’ve removed the bad browser extension. We will keep improving our systems to ensure that people continue to have a safe experience on Facebook.”