Point of View: Bad crops growing at the ‘like farm’

Roman S. Koenig

2013_COLUMN_KOENIG_RI’ve never been one for popularity contests. I learned to be suspicious of them long ago in high school when I saw what kind of twits could be elected to student office.

But I never really questioned whether I was naive about them. Until now.

Late in October, I took part in the Four Points Film Project, an international film competition in which teams had 72 hours to put a film together — start to finish — using required elements handed to them by the contest organizers.

My film, “Pity the Imposter,” made it to the top 20 best films out of about 100 registered teams and was eligible for an Audience Choice award. The voting took place online at Vimeo.com. Basically, to vote, registered Vimeo members clicked on a “heart” similar to the “thumbs-up” on Facebook and YouTube. Vimeo has a general reputation of being free from spam chicanery.

As the week of voting in late November approached closure, “Pity the Imposter” broke into the top five of the Audience Choice bracket. I was, of course, delighted to see this. Not being one to embrace popularity contests, I was still pleased to know that being in the top five would be a nice wrap-up to the contest. The two top films gained so many votes there was no way for anyone to catch up with them, so I was pleased with being at the bottom of the top five.

Then, shortly after midnight Nov. 22, a low-ranking film shot past mine within the span of a few minutes. I was so surprised to see a film go from nowhere to instant top-five that I wanted to see who they were able to round up to instantly gain such strong support at an odd hour.

I looked at the users who liked the film, and I was immediately suspicious — 60 instant votes from characters such as a boy named “ELLACARLOS” and a toddler named “AUDREYLOGAN,” and semi-blurry oddities whose screen names were different from the names watermarked on their profile photos.

Upon clicking the profiles, I found that these same 60 characters voted for one of the other films, vaulting them into the No. 4 spot in Audience Choice. All 60 also, in recent months, had “liked” Vimeo films from Russian business interests, obscure homeowners associations, and shower and garage door venders. And I can’t forget the ostrich race video they all liked.

As a result, toward the close of voting, two of the five top Audience Choice picks weren’t chosen by a legitimate audience in the first place.

In talking to one of the actors on my project, he gave me a couple of links to stories about the growing problem of “like farming.” This concept seems to have two categories — websites and social media pages unaware that they are being manipulated, or sites and pages where the owners have purchased the votes to boost their online presence, including to win online contests.

In looking through these bogus Vimeo voters, I found that many of them also “followed” the producer of the La Costa Film Festival.

I honestly don’t know whether the filmmakers who saw their entries launch upward in the Audience Choice contest bought their votes or were unaware of the problem. They certainly didn’t seem to complain. Either way, it can be a reputation killer.

I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, but upon further research, it’s demoralizing to see just how easy it is to purchase “likes” and views in the thousands, and quite cheaply.

In a basic Google search of “buy Vimeo likes,” I found numerous services marketing exactly that. The sites touted: “Buy Vimeo Views | Get real Vimeo Views | $9 for 5000,” “Buy Vimeo Likes | Social Marketeers,” “#1 Site to Buy Vimeo Views, Likes, Subscribers, Comments” and “BUXP – Buy Vimeo Plays, Comments and Likes.” These were specific to Vimeo, but there are a lot more out there for general online fixing.

Cody Permenter of The Daily Dot did an extensive report on the growth of “like farms,” focusing on the problem at Facebook.

“One of the largest Facebook vote-scamming operations in the world sits in the Indian coastal town of Chennai, an affluent metropolis of 5 million people better known as ‘the Detroit of India’ thanks to its booming auto economy,” Permenter wrote. “There, the 54-person staff of 99 Enterprises coordinates a worldwide effort to help customers win glamorous online contests or increase their social influence with armies of phony followers and likes. They work in two shifts, with two managers watching over the day and night employees.”

The report looked at what some of these services will offer for vote rigging.

“How much would say, 200 fake entries cost? Buy Votes Cheap had the lowest offering, at $10, followed by Selling Honest Likes and Votes at $25. Buy Votes for Online Voting Contests replied with the princely sum of $60,” Permenter reported.

This is where I am saddened by my own personal naivete. How could I honestly believe I could win a simple Audience Choice vote in an environment like this?

Then the larger questions come to mind.

As this kind of practice becomes common knowledge, and perhaps commonly accepted, is it any wonder why people don’t vote in elections that really matter? And consider: This column isn’t even talking about the huge money game that’s now played in local, state and national elections.

If the electorate is now becoming personally numbed to the manipulation of “likes” (votes) for their own favorite things and activities — to the point where even a good old-fashioned marketing survey is now suspicious — is it any surprise they tune out?

The automatic assumption could be that every vote literally doesn’t count. So why bother at all?

As for the Four Points Film Project, I don’t envy the contest organizers’ task of finding a more secure way of handling Audience Choice voting that includes public participation. I do not blame them at all for this predicament. If they were to disqualify spam votes, where and how would they draw the line? How would they distinguish legitimate votes of, say, one family or a small group of friends who are sitting around one computer, each casting a vote with their own legitimate Vimeo account? Would that be considered fraud?

The blatant “farming” of votes is a symptom of a much larger problem that no one seems able to address right now. I certainly don’t have an answer, other than to at least bring it up for discussion.

In the end, my film fought its way back to fourth place Audience Choice in the contest, thanks to real people who rallied behind the project.

For the record, the two films with the audience spammers are “Hi, Neighbor” and “Liquid.” Check them out. Get to know the “film buffs” who supported their work, including a woman named “Bella,” or is it “Dominique?”

Roman S. Koenig is editor and publisher of the North Coast Current, and is an independent filmmaker. Columns are the opinions of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of North Coast Current ownership. Comment below or submit letters to the editor at [email protected].