Reality Check: 10-15% Of Brands’ Social Media Fans, Likes And Reviews Will Be Fake By 2014, Says Gartner

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Fake fans, fake “likes” and fake reviews are some of the worst aspects of social media — or at least for those of us earnest enough to take user-generated content and the will of the crowd seriously. Now, new research from Gartner lays bare the fact that it’s only going to get worse, as paid social media interactions become a more established industry unto themselves. The analysts predict that by 2014, some 10%-15% of all social media reviews and other forms of engagement will be fake, paid for by the companies getting endorsed.

Ed Thompson, Gartner analyst and co-author of the report, says that this compares to about 1%-4% of social media interactions being paid today — a number he says is based on research on paid and automatically generated reviews and other interactions for different brands.

Gaming social media is not exactly a new concept, but given it’s a space that in theory relies on the goodwill of the masses, doing so is a pretty sleazy art. What makes it more difficult to parse is that a lot of it is hard to pin down. The Mitt Romney U.S. Presidential campaign, for example, got an earful earlier this year when it was revealed that he had thousands of fake Twitter followers – but Zac Moffatt, digital director for Romney’s campaign, last week told an audience at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco that the campaign “had nothing to do with that.”

The whole concept of figuring out fake followers for famous and not-so-famous brands and people has even become something of an online pastime, with sites like Fake Follower Check from StatusPeople revealing all sorts of embarrassing numbers.

On the other hand, there are a number of companies that are promoting the idea of paying you to tweet. Companies like Ad.ly work with celebrities, while others like Izea’s Sponsored Tweets tap into a wider range of influencers to promote brands. Companies like PaidPerTweet cast their nets even wider, with remunerations coming in the form of straight cash but also coupons and other promotions. The targets range from tweets, to “likes” and “shares” on Facebook, to favoriting brands’ YouTube videos to push them up the charts.

Not all of these make it clear when people are effectively behaving as walking billboards, rather than expressing their own opinions.

That lack of transparency is not going to go down well longer-term, says Gartner. It predicts that while the space is unregulated today, at some point consumer organizations are going to start weighing in. In the next two years, it says, at least two major Fortune 500 companies will find themselves under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission in the U.S. over fake ratings and reviews. There has been a precedent here: in 2009 the FTC said that positive reviews posted without full disclosure of compensation (if it’s there) can be prosecuted as a case of false or deceptive advertising.

The rise of paid social media endorsements comes with the fact that people are spending a lot more time online on these platforms, and brands are desperate to tap into user-generated content as the most valuable kind of endorsement of all. They also don’t want to be left out of the crazy scaling that some of these sites are seeing: Facebook for example is now at around 1 billion users and still growing fast.

“With over half of the internet’s population on social networks, organisations are scrambling for new ways to build bigger follower bases, generate more hits on videos, garner more positive reviews than their competitors and solicit ‘likes’ on their Facebook pages,” writes Jenny Sussin, a Gartner senior research analyst.

Although the FTC is taking a stand here, it’s imperative that the platform operators — Twitter, Facebook, and more — to also do something. After all, they also want to be making money from advertising alongside the content; if they don’t get the balance of ads to real content right, the whole business model could end up in jeopardy. That’s all the more critical considering that, as Gartner notes, public trust of social media is already fairly low.

Still, we’re not at a tipping point yet for people completely discrediting social media sites altogether because of rampant fake tweets. “If you think the reviews are fake how can you trust a social site? When do we hit the tipping point when we stop trusting social media sites?” he asks. I counter with the fact that people will simply begin to cut down their interactions only to trusted sources. It could make these huge sites seem a whole lot smaller in that sense.

Meanwhile, another class of social media marketeers appears to be emerging: those who are helping with “reputation defense”: that is, rather than flooding sites with paid endorsements, rising to the task of making sure the negative critiques are complemented by interaction and response (oh, and positive reviews) in a slightly more organic way.