Our research studied the market for social-media manipulation using metrics such as the selling of likes, comments, shares, accounts, followers, and other kinds of engagement on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
About our cooperation partner and research focus
The NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Latvia is a NATO-accredited international military organization founded in 2014.
Because social media can be used and manipulated for political gain, in information warfare, and to influence public opinion, NATO StratCOM was interested in conducting research on this topic. The main goal was to understand what a potential customer wishing to wage information warfare can purchase online.
Methodology and research tools used
Data Mining, Dark Web Research, Interview with market players, Secret Shopper
The most important discoveries
The openness of the black market
Despite the fact that social network Terms of Service don't allow likes, comments, or subscribers to be bought, our research team found a number of paid ads that promote social media manipulation tools.
A simple search showed that the social media black market is open and easily accessible. One more insight was that searching in the Russian language showed services to be cheaper.
Tools for manipulation
We studied the structure of the market and defined different types of manipulation services:
a) Fake accounts - the basic tool for gaining access to a social network and manipulating it.
Certain characteristics affect the price of a fake account:
Type of account: whether it is automatically registered, manually registered, or hacked
Account verification: automatically or manually verified, or unverified
Content: accounts with no content, with a profile picture, with a profile picture and a few photos, or with a profile picture, photos, and a range of posts
Account age: from days to 7+ years old
b) Ways to manipulating social metrics
Fake automated accounts
Special 'freelance' platforms
Malicious software acting without a user's permission
The division of labor in the black market
There is a social media manipulation industry with a division of labor. Our researchers found the following activities on the black market:
Development and maintenance of social metric manipulation software
Generation of fictitious accounts
Provision of mobile proxies and solutions for SMS activation.
The division of labor in the market speaks to its openness and accessibility.
Categorization by quality
We studied a host of factors and defined three categories of social media manipulation by quality:
The low-end segment provides the cheapest products and the lowest quality (such as automatically registered but unverified accounts).
The mid-range segment consists of accounts that are mostly registered automatically.
The high-end segment consists of accounts that have real friends and subscribers, content, and unique profile pictures.
After a comparative analysis of prices, we didn't find a clear relationship between price and quality. This indicates that the market is inefficient in terms of supply and demand.
The results of the black-market study
The main conclusions of the research were the following:
The black market for social media manipulation is open and easily accessible via any search engine.
The market is inefficient, meaning that there are huge price differences for the same goods and services.
Searching services in the Russian language leads to a cheaper price for them.
There is a large number of tools for manipulation, and a division of labor underpins the industry.