LE MONDE

There's No Such Thing As "Viral" - A Foray Into The World Of Fake Friends

Follow me please!
Follow me please!
Yves Eudes

PARIS - If you go by its website, Mars Kebab is the only fast-food restaurant in Paris that delivers sandwiches to the planet Mars.

In the real world, Mars Kebab doesn't exist, but that doesn't keep it from having an excellent reputation on the web. Its promotional video has been viewed 105,000 times on YouTube, and it has more than 46,000 followers on Twitter. Only its Facebook page does not have many fans yet, only 578. But its "community manager" plans to attract 20,000 before long. Already, if you look up "Mars Kebab" on Google, you get thousands of results. The brand is mentioned everywhere, even in restaurant guides.

Mars Kebab is a real-life experiment by Parisian public relations agency Heaven, who wanted to demonstrate how easy it is to cheat and create an e-reputation out of the blue.

To uncover the deception, all you have to do is look at the profile of Mars Kebab's Twitter followers. Linda, for example, is a beautiful blond with an amusing profile written in English. In October 2011 she published 14 gibberish messages in a row, and since then, not one tweet. She follows 1470 accounts, mainly big consumer brands and marketing agencies from all over the world. But she has only 49 followers. One of them, Khleo Hampton, has a profile identical to hers, including dates and number of tweets. Linda and Khleo are fakes, counterfeit profiles created en masse by computers, sometimes with the help of attack software to get around security measures.

Likewise, on YouTube, all of Mars Kebab's 105,000 views happened within the space of 48 hours, and then ceased all together. The "viewers" were computers programmed to log on every eight seconds.

This kind of service, the sale of fake profiles, is found all over the Internet. There are dozens of specialized companies, and their clients include major consumer brands.

“Inactive” and “active” followers

For its demonstration, Mars Kebab used Buy Real Marketing (BRM), which is based in the Philippines with Canadian owners. For YouTube, its price is 15 dollars for 5000 views, with a delivery guarantee of less than three days. Mars Kebab bought itself 100,000 occasional viewers, plus 10,000 permanent subscribers-- serious admirers, who have a higher market value. On Twitter, BRM sells a batch of 1,000 subscribers for 17 dollars. Mars Kebab ordered 25,000 of them and got almost twice as many. The bots must love it.

BRM uses instant messaging to communicate with its customers, and they talk to "Judy," who seems to be a human being. Judy insists shamelessly that all the Twitter followers her company sells are "real people," but she distinguishes between two categories. “Inactive” followers, like Linda, are very cheap, but not particularly credible. Judy also offers “active” followers, who are more expensive and reserved for faithful clients. To get them, customers must enter a password. The bot can then automatically deliver 2000 authentic subscribers, the maximum Twitter allows. All of them have been pre-selected according to an analysis of their profiles, their preferences and their friends.

Some are chosen because they voluntarily take part in marketing campaigns in their topics of interest, such as sports, fashion, food, or cars. Others tend to follow back those who follow them, out of politeness. This can go on ad infinitum. The long-term goal is to attract "spontaneous" followers, a bit naive, who believe that a Twitter account with a large number of followers must be interesting. Then, the most obvious fake profiles can be discreetly eliminated.

To increase its sales force, BRM invites its European customers to become a business partner. If they buy large numbers of fakes, they benefit from preferential pricing and will be able to sell the fakes for a profit in their own local market. Other companies are set up directly in Europe. Boostic, based in Florida, has a sales site and a hotline in French. For an additional fee, it even offers French-speaking followers.

For Facebook the procedure is similar, but this time Mars Kebab was unlucky. It ordered 20,000 fans on Socialkik, a low-cost provider of indeterminate nationality, hosted in the U.S. It was a bad choice. After cashing the check, Socialkik informed its clients that the order would be filled in ten months. An eternity online. It seems there are fake sellers, as well as fake fans. However, instantaneous delivery is not always advisable. Some sellers offer to spread out delivery of followers over time, to give the illusion of a naturally growing fan base.

“Viral” is a myth

The problem has become so widespread that specialized bloggers have even published comparative tests of fake-profile vendors. Others sell a kind of antidote. For a monthly fee of 30 euros, English start-up Status People performs a periodic analysis of its clients' Twitter accounts, showing the results, in percentages, of fakes, inactives, and actives. Reading the website attentively, you realize that StatusPeople also offers to analyze accounts without their owners' knowing-- competitors, partners….

In Paris, as everywhere else, community managers know about this. Nobody admits doing it, but in private, everyone recognizes that some of their colleagues have been tempted, all along the line: advertising, design and media agencies, public relations companies, even the advertisers. The strategy is very tempting; because of course a company that spends money for a Facebook presence has a tendency to consider the number of its fans as a simple indicator of its excellence and competitive position.

The typical buyer of fake fans is an overworked project manager who cannot achieve some arbitrarily set goal, or a creative whose video has been less viral than forecast (i.e. those who see it do not spontaneously recommend it to their friends).

While condemning these practices, professionals are a bit ambivalent about fakes. Arthur Kannas, the brilliant inventor of Mars Kebab and director of the Heaven agency, says that "purely viral" is a myth. "Advertisers naively believe that if they publish amusing or interesting content on an advertising page, visitors will flock to it as if by magic. That isn't true. To make people come, first you have to prime the pump artificially, one way or another. "

A common technique on Facebook, considered legitimate, is for an advertiser to buy publicity space on the pages of a group of pre-selected users, to urge them to come visit the advertiser's page. Thanks to these walled-off ads, Facebook is also selling fan profiles, although with more uncertain results.

“Teething problems”

Others hope the problem will disappear on its own, as the mentality of advertisers is beginning to change. Stéphanie Valibouse, community manager at the Marcel Worldwide agency, says that in the trimestral evaluation reports of its performance, the absolute number of its Facebook fans is no longer the sole criterion. "My bosses calculate the "commitment rate," in other words fans' level of participation in discussions and loyalty programs. There is also a viral rate. When fans come to say something on our page, their friends see that and can decide to come too. But if a page has too many fake profiles, which are passive by definition, those rates will be low."

Likewise, Bastien Chanot, digital project manager for the Fred & Farid agency, believes that fakes are just teething problems in the great adventure of brand advertising on social networks, which has a bright future. "The market is still very immature, but in three to five years, company directors will have a better understanding of image building, and they will be looking for quality." He also points out that everyone is affected, willy-nilly. "In an article on its website, Le Monde congratulated itself that it had reached a million Twitter followers, but it also announced that 47 % of them might be fakes, without explaining how that happened." He also noted that fakes could damage the social networks themselves. "If everyone realizes that Facebook and Twitter are full of fakes, their credibility and profits will suffer. They will have to take measures to keep fakes down to an acceptable level." In August, Facebook announced that it had identified 83 million pages as "dubious." However, on the whole, social networks are like their users. They publish their raw numbers as if they were declarations of victory.

In the meantime, we are seeing an extension of the fakes market in all directions. BRM, Boostic and the others have begun to sell fan profiles on a whole new series of networks, such as, for example, artistic video site Vimeo, sharing sites Instagram and Pinterest, or electro music site SoundCloud, used by many unknown musicians. Having gone after celebrities and top brands, they are now aiming at the general public.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire


According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA

Unsplash/@nemo23


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council


Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire


The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

Unsplash/@hkblind


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke


During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press


Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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