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Monday, February 20, 2012

Companies Pay ‘Social Media Mercenaries’ To Tout Products


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.

China’s Facebook

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.


  • Gareth Cook, reporter for the Boston Globe

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  • http://profiles.google.com/rickevans033050 Rick Evans

    This is a bit different from social media but last year I was researching hotels in upstate New York when I encountered a number of phony reviews. How did I know? First all were glowing 5 stars. However what really tipped me was multiple reviewers of the hotel had all glowingly “reviewed” about 30 businesses often with the same no-name small business “reviewed” by several reviewers. What are the odds two reviewers stay in the same Quality Inn months apart then travel 450 miles and get takeout from the same Chinese restaurant?

  • Leo_osborne

    It is likely that this type of social media cheating will be almost impossible to stop as long as the offenders are careful. With using restraint and not calling attention to their activities, an owner of a fake facebook account would easily blend in with all of the legitimate accounts. I wonder what type of behavior has tipped people off in the past?  

  • http://www.facebook.com/BobLevin.writer Bob Levin

    “Companies Pay ‘Social Media Mercenaries’ To Tout Products”…this has
    been going on for some time in a number of venues while agent provocateurs have
    created multiple personas using social media websites. In much the same way
    that 30,000 unmanned predator drones originally designed for combat theaters
    are set to be deployed in the skies over the United State to target a new
    enemy, the thinking innocent American citizen, U.S. government agents have also
    been employing a software originally designed for the U.S. Intelligence
    Community to against overseas’ enemies. The friends and enemies of the U.S.
    government are two horns on the same goat, just ask any tier one federal
    whistleblower. The software allows an cyber operative to pose as ten different
    personas simultaneously.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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