In May, dimly lit footage posted by a dubious Russian blog, English Russia, showing a Chinese office equipped with 10,000 phones, confirmed what many in tech media have warned about for years: Views and rankings all over the internet are being manipulated by “click farms.”
The high ratings of many apps on Android stores come courtesy of low-paid workers in airless rooms; and the same goes for any online product or social media campaign looking to generates “likes” and raise revenue. But you probably weren’t looking very hard at these reviews anyway.
Though most reports focus on the impact this deception has on users, the real audience for media manipulators are investors and advertisers, who are more willing to back products that they believe are going viral. Yet they, too, may be in on the con.
Click farms (刷榜 shuābǎng or “rankings-brushing”) work by having unskilled employees manually download, install, then uninstall apps from banks of smartphones, thus boosting the app’s popularity in stores. Companies like Apple work hard to prevent the use of PC-based iPhone emulators, so manual labor offers a cheap, if mind-numbing workaround. As there is a “real” user ID behind these downloads, the practice is harder to regulate than fake clicks generated by software.
As Phoenix Technology reported in 2016, click farms are a multi-million RMB industry: each recorded app user brings in 2.5 to 4 RMB in advertising revenue, and the price for hiring a “click farm” to get an app into Android’s top five is 330,000 to 400,000 RMB.
According to Phoenix, developers backed by click farms “can produce flattering numbers for the investors, who in turn can bring flattering numbers to investors behind them.” As for advertisers, “ad companies are themselves known for inflating user numbers to deceive clients, so being able to attract real users through ‘brushing up’ still has merit.”
This might explain the willingness of one click farm to allow cameras in: Virality has its commercial uses, regardless of how it happens. This is not to say the practice hasn’t seen opposition in China. As early as 2015, Shanghai’s commerce bureau was investigating one ad company for hiring professional ranking-brushers. Last year, a data firm in Beijing sued two click farms in Hangzhou for interfering with the accuracy of their analysis software. In June, three Chinese nationals were arrested in Thailand at another click-farming operation—each were getting paid up to 4,400 USD a month to pad the rankings.
Cover image from jiggie.jaa.9