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Exposing Cyber Shills and Social Media's Underworld

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It's been said that the Internet is the "great equalizer" because it provides the infrastructure for a small businesses to successfully compete with larger competitors. Enterprising and resourceful entrepreneurs can create an online presence that provides similar pricing, delivery and service with a lot less overhead than brick-and-mortar stores. The Internet is full of success stories featuring businesses that have hundreds of thousands of registered users, seemingly overnight. Other stories tell of individual authors or web-celebrities who have tens of thousands of followers and "Likes" without any real history or experience in their markets.

The manner in which many of these "overnight successes" have achieved their supposed popularity has been discussed, under breath, for quite some time by marketing strategists. If you listen carefully to the conversations of those "in the know" at industry events, you can hear the whispered snickers and snide comments. It's understood -- but rarely discussed in public -- that these individuals and businesses have used software to artificially increase their numbers and that their meteoric rise and popularity aren't what they seem.

We know of many tools that artificially build Twitter followings, Facebook "Likes," and even user registrations for online services, yet few admit to using them. In fact, the running joke is that those who fervently criticize their use are often the ones deploying such services to amplify their online presence.

Why the Game?

The allure or need to grow numbers quickly -- even artificially -- is understandable. It's about social proof. Social proof is the theory that an individual's beliefs or purchase decisions are positively impacted if enough of their peers believe something to be true or valuable (as represented by online votes, positive ratings, etc.). Movie-goers and restaurant patrons are swayed more by public ratings and Facebook conversations than by the reviews of a few professional critics. Studies have proven that purchase of mobile devices is positively connected to the number of friends and colleagues who have purchased a similar product. The value of social proof is immeasurable for individuals and businesses, including software companies, technology firms, consumer product goods manufacturers, celebrities, authors, and so on.

Many social media and corporate sites that offer public commentary and public rating tools have attempted to derail these software programs by adding CAPTCHA codes or multi-step email validation as part of their engagement processes. However, a recent study by the University of California, Santa Barbara highlighted a growing trend that effectively renders these preventative measures worthless.

Exposing Cyber Shills

A group of researchers at UCSB studied the growing practice of hiring cyber shills who are paid to manually inflate positive reviews and ratings. Such companies have existed for some time in the United States. including,, and Because of labor costs, however, most are focused on improving search engine optimization using software programs and processes.

Shill: An accomplice of a hawker, gambler, or swindler who acts as an enthusiastic customer to entice or encourage others.

A new crop of overseas cyber shills like or is quickly growing in popularity because of low operational costs. Such companies artificially increase the social proof of their customer's individual and business profiles for mere pennies. And business is booming.

The authors of the study stated that they "have found surprising evidence showing that not only do malicious crowd-sourcing systems exist, but they are rapidly growing in both user base and total revenue." These companies have access to thousands of human shills seated front of computers, doing what software can't do: registering for services and product trials; signing up for social accounts; liking/following people and brands; and providing the screen captures, blog posts and commentary to demonstrate their affinity and actions. And all for a price that makes it near impossible for unscrupulous marketers and brands to ignore.

The business itself is a bit of a shell game and worthy of an espionage novel. Individuals or businesses seeking to artificially inflate their online metrics hire a U.S.-based sales and marketing firm for their "social media consulting services." Those firms in turn outsource some work to overseas firms that hire local cyber shills to perform the work. Many degrees of separation exist in order for the beneficiary to claim clean hands."

Pulling Back The Curtain On The Wizard

In an economy where social proof is becoming mandatory for media exposure and sales, cyber shills will be hired in greater numbers by brand and marketing firms, despite their public opposition to the practice. The profitable and rapid growth of the Chinese organizations highlighted in the report published by UCSB is proof that cyber shills are being used in greater numbers. It may be naive of me, but I would hope that shining a light on social media's underworld might start the process of combating the use of cyber shills. At a minimum, it puts into question any marketing practice or social/web-based metric used to demonstrate proof of business or personal value.

Social celebrities who claim to be experts or influential because of high numbers of Twitter followers, without a demonstration of real experience, should be questioned. Marketers who use case studies that prove their ability to increase a brand's number of fans or likes must be reconsidered. Influence scoring platforms that use just those surface metrics to generate influencer lists cannot be considered trustworthy. The growing use of cyber shills has cast a shadow on the entire concept of social proof.

Where do you stand on the use and impact of cyber shills? Will they remain underground? Will the public ever realize their use? Or care? Should they be regulated? Join the debate in the comments below.

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