Affiliate ad scammers say Facebook helped them trick users

Most of the attention focused on Facebook right now is aimed at the Cambridge Analytica leak, where a shadowy Trump-affiliated organization got hold of personal data on 50 million Facebook users and targeted them with ads and fake news during the 2016 election. But this saga is just one example of how Facebook’s targeting features can be misused. As a fascinating new story from Bloomberg points out, shady affiliate marketers have been mining the social network for dubious clicks for years, and making millions of dollars by doing so.

The March 27 article goes inside a community of digital grifters and con-men who use social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to run cons involving untold riches, self-help scams, and bogus health remedies. Author Zeke Faux (whose last name is particularly appropriate) writes about a conference in Berlin last year where Facebook had a large presence. It was supposed to be about traditional marketing, but was filled with shysters and click-farmers:

The Berlin conference was hosted by an online forum called Stack That Money, but a newcomer could be forgiven for wondering if it was somehow sponsored by Facebook Inc. Saleswomen from the company held court onstage, introducing speakers and moderating panel discussions. After the show, Facebook representatives flew to Ibiza on a plane rented by Stack That Money to party with some of the top affiliates… Officially, the Berlin conference was for aboveboard marketing, but the attendees I spoke to dropped that pretense after the mildest questioning. Some even walked around wearing hats that said “farmin’,” promoting a service that sells fake Facebook accounts.

Facebook has taken pains to point out that it doesn’t want this kind of business on the network, and says it has been working hard to get rid of scammers. Rob Leathern, who joined the company in 2017 as part of an effort to purge the network of affiliate marketers and similar low-life advertisers, tells Bloomberg that the days when such people could make millions with dubious clicks are over. “We are working hard to get these people off the platform. Winter is coming. They may get away with it for a while, but the party’s not going to last,” he says.

That could be easier said than done, however, given the head start that Facebook provided over the past few years to the scammers and their supporters. Tracking down ads that were placed by Russian trolls and aimed at voters during the 2016 election is complicated, but it might actually be easier than rooting out these kinds of scams. When their accounts are blocked or banned, affiliate link traders simply set up new ones under other plausible-sounding names, and start again.

And so, the same tools that allowed Cambridge Analytica and Russian trolls to target voters with customized propaganda by using psycho-graphic profiles based on Facebook data also give marketers the ability to push their ads to a vast network of gullible users for pennies per click. And even Facebook is a small part of the larger problem of an advertising industry based on what experts like sociologist Zeynep Tufekci have called “surveillance capitalism.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.