Click farms are the new sweatshops

Early in 2012, the world started to learn about the "like" market: Web sites that would juice your apparent popularity on various social media platforms by delivering bundled likes and followers, at the rate about $75 for 1,000. Brands, bands, and even the U.S. State Department spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to contract with one of the many companies that have sprung up to serve the demand, employing real humans for pennies a click.


Just imagine computers instead of sewing machines. (Kim Hong-JiKim Hong-Ji/AFP/Getty Images)

On Sunday, the Associated Press reported on just how big of a business it's become, complete with third-world outsourcing:

Dhaka, Bangladesh, a city of 7 million in South Asia, is an international hub for click farms.

The CEO of Dhaka-based social media promotion firm Unique IT World said he has paid workers to manually click on clients' social media pages, making it harder for Facebook, Google and others to catch them. "Those accounts are not fake, they were genuine," Shaiful Islam said.

A recent check on Facebook showed Dhaka was the most popular city for many, including soccer star Leo Messi, who has 51 million likes; Facebook's own security page, which has 7.7 million likes; and Google's Facebook page, which has 15.2 million likes.

The story doesn't say much about what those click farms are like, but the Guardian got more details back in August:

For the workers, it is miserable work, sitting at screens in dingy rooms facing a blank wall, with windows covered by bars, and sometimes working through the night. For that, they could have to generate 1,000 likes or follow 1,000 people on Twitter to earn a single US dollar...

Sharaf al-Nomani, Shareyt's owner, told Dispatches in an undercover meeting that "around 30% or 40% of the clicks will come from Bangladesh" – which implies about 25,000 people in Dhaka using computers laboriously and repetitively for hours on end to boost the visibility of specific products to order.

It's just a reminder that Web traffic is a valuable commodity, both for its ability to drive advertising revenue and its value in demonstrating popularity. In the absence of organic appeal, it can be generated manually, with the most menial kind of labor -- and it makes sense that middlemen would source it from Bangladesh, which still has the lowest labor costs in the world.

Could click farming ever become a sector on the scale of simple textiles, which have gravitated to countries that can produce them the cheapest? Probably not, given the ferocity with which social media companies are fighting the trend -- fake likes and followers are a huge business risk, and a cottage industry of auditors has cropped up to sniff them out. For now, though, it appears it's become the most basic form of piecework in the global economy: One electronic impulse after another. 

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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