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The Thin Line between Legitimate and Illegitimate Social Media Marketing Practices

The next speaker in this AoIR 2017 session is Thomas Beauvisage, who begins by highlighting the algorithmic ordering of content in social media. This is also a form of reputational capital, and has led to the development of a rogue industry providing 'fake' followers, likes, and other quantifiable measures of apparent user interest.

This is related to a range of standard attentional techniques and encoded in standardised, industry-recognised metrics. Some of these metrics are generated through social bots and other forms of online automation, and represent a form of sometimes playful numeric manipulation. But what is this 'black' market? Who are the companies and individual behind it, and what is their position in the attention economy?

These illegitimate practices are strongly linked with legitimate practices in the social media marketing industry; some of the businesses certainly consider themselves as ordinary, legitimate businesses. Thomas and his colleagues conducted interviews with practitioners in both legitimate and illegitimate businesses in France, in both 2013 and 2016.

Social media marketing was very attractive to marketers early on, as it promised a more direct relationship with customers, and enlisted customers themselves in the viral sharing of content. The early industry consisted of a range of emerging, experimental agencies that presented untested, raw metrics as evidence of their success. However, such viral distribution has remained elusive other than in a small number of unusual cases; parts of the industry were also found to engage in dubious practices such as the creation of 'fake followers' and the artificial pump-priming of viral campaigns.

Today, the industry involves spontaneous community management elements as well as routinised online advertising practices. Fake metrics services, too, have standardised their products, with typical quantities of likes or followers (500 / 1000 / 10,000 / ...) now readily available from a range of companies, which also aids price comparison between different services. As part of this, companies also sell access to networks of real users who follow popular thematic pages, country targetting, and manual promotion work (often by low-paid clickworkers in countries like Bangladesh or India).

These companies largely see their activities as illegitimate, but not illegal; some of the larger operation seek legitimacy. Their customers, too, see them as a necessary evil, given the attention economy within which they operate. Platforms continue to fight back against such cheating practices, but there is a substantial amount of automation in this environment, and some legitimate bots and companies are also operating in this space. There is therefore now also a continuity between legitimate and illegitimate practices, on historical, technical, entrepreneurial, and customer levels. The gaming of digital metrics continues, in marketing (through SEO, linking, ratings, etc.) as much as in politics (through 'fake news' and other practices).