Updated from 10:31 a.m. EST with details, background.
SAN JOSE, CALIF. -- Celebrities, businesses and even the State Department have bought bogus Facebook (FB) likes, Twitter (TWTR) followers or YouTube viewers. These clicks are sold by techies who run offshore "click farms," where they tap, tap, tap the thumbs up button, view videos or retweet comments to artificially inflate social media numbers.
Since Facebook launched almost 10 years ago, users have sought to expand their social networks for financial gain, winning friends, bragging rights and professional clout. And social media companies cite the levels of engagement to tout their value.
But an Associated Press examination has found a growing global marketplace for fake clicks, by the billions, which tech companies struggle to police. Online records, industry studies and interviews show companies around the world are capitalizing on the opportunity to make millions of dollars by gaming the whole concept behind social media.
For as little as a half cent each click, Web sites hawk everything from LinkedIn (LNKD) connections to make members appear more employable to Soundcloud plays to influence record label interest.
"Anytime there's a monetary value added to clicks, there's going to be people going to the dark side," said Mitul Gandhi, CEO of seoClarity, a Des Plaines, Ill., social media marketing firm that weeds out phony online engagements.
Italian security researchers and bloggers Andrea Stroppa and Carla De Micheli estimated in 2013 that sales of fake Twitter followers have the potential to bring in $40 million to $360 million to date, and that fake Facebook activities bring in $200 million a year.
As a result, many firms, whose values are based on credibility, have entire teams doggedly pursuing the buyers and brokers of fake clicks. But each time they crack down on one, another, more creative scheme emerges.
When software engineers wrote computer programs, for example, to generate lucrative fake clicks, tech giants fought back with software that screens out "bot-generated" clicks and began regularly sweeping user accounts.