Gartner: Expect 10-15% Increase in Fake, Paid Social Media Reviews and Likes by 2014

We’ve all seen our share of bogus social media activity, be it fake likes, ratings, or reviews, that are paid for by a company trying to goose its sales or generate buzz about some product. According to research firm Gartner, the amount of that bogus activity will account for 10-15% of all social media activity by 2014.

To be clear, the problem is not that companies are sponsoring content; that’s been a common practice for a long time in a variety of media, and as long as there are appropriate disclosures, there’s no problem. The issue with this kind of covert marketing is that it’s essentially a lie.

The FTC certainly feels that way; in 2009, the commission ruled that it’s deceptive advertising to pay for a positive review without disclosing that the reviewer had been paid, and that such an offense can be prosecuted. Gartner believes that at least two Fortune 500 brands will feel the wrath of the FTC’s litigious forces for such violations over the next couple of years.

FTC building
FTC Building in Washington, D.C.

Even without the threat of prosecution, these tactics are sure to backfire on companies caught using them (which has certainly happened before), and brands will have to deal with the backlash. “Marketing, customer service and IT social media managers looking to use reviews, fans and ‘likes’ to improve their brand's reputation on social media must beware of the potential negative consequences on corporate reputation and profitability,” said Ed Thompson, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner and co-author of the report in a press release. “CMOs will need to weigh the longer-term risks of being caught and the associated fines and damage to reputation and balance them against the short-term potential rewards of increased business and the prevailing common business practice in their market, often regardless of ethics.”

Facebook, Twitter, et al. have surely taken note of this trend and would be wise to be proactive here. Mark Zuckerberg knows that the primary reason that people flock to and remain enamored of Facebook (at least according to Aaron Sorkin) is that it’s cool. It’s where the party’s at, so to speak, and the great power of such a platform is that it creates a democratic environment buoyed by inertia. For example, the more people that “like” your Thing, the more visible it becomes to other people, who in turn may decide to “like” it, which in turn exposes it to more people, and so on. But if people no longer trust the “likes” they see, the psychological effect is diluted, and the whole concept no longer works.

Facebook is already walking a fine line with its Sponsored Stories content, but allowing surreptitious and false marketing to invade the most popular social media platform of all time at the rate Gartner predicts could create an annoying problem for social media platforms.