“Good click harvest this year…”

According to the Clickfarmer’s Almanac at least.

Clicks, shares, and follows are the currency of the Internet — both metaphorically (friends admire them) and literally (advertisers pay for them). So, it’s no surprise that there’s a burgeoning black market for acquiring them.

With $10 and a little web browsing, you can get yourself a healthy chunk of questionably legitimate (re: illegitimate) Twitter followers, YouTube views, or Facebook shares, through operations called “clickfarms.”

And, earlier this week, a big one was busted up in Thailand: 3 dudes generating millions of fake page views on WeChat using 474 iPhones and 347k SIM cards.

The sweatshops of the Internet

The three workers in the Thai clickfarm were just peons in a greater scheme, getting paid $4.4k per month to sit on phones all day, using thousands of WeChat bot accounts to artificially pump up engagement with online products.

Most clickfarms operate in Southeast Asia, where smartphone usage fees are dirt cheap (relative to the US, at least) and incredibly cheap labor can be exploited — a 2014 AP report found that most fake clicks are actually generated by real humans, not computers.

These workers click away in paltry conditions, getting paid as little as $1 per 1,000 likes, shares, or follows. Clickfarm operators, in turn, flip these engagements for $5 to $13 online, depending on the platform, creating an industry worth about $500m.

C’monnnn, everybody’s doin’ it

You might think that the only people who would buy phony social currency are teenage girls looking to get more <3’s on their Instagram selfies. Wrong.

Celebrities, politicians, big businesses, and the government have been found to have large amounts of fake engagements on social media. Case in point, back in 2013, the actual U.S. State Department paid $630k to boost their Facebook following from 10k to 2.5m.

But anyone considering buying clicks should be wary. It’s like the saying we just made up goes: A quality engagement is worth a thousand paid clicks.

Welcome to The Hustle. We send an email every morning with all the big news from business, tech, and culture. Just the important stuff-- none of the fluff. Sign up below or read our most recent email to see what's up.
When you're ready, of course.